The Moustache Exposé

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The Moustache. One of the most contentious forms of facial hair in history, dividing taste since the first caveman decided that ‘the natural look’ wasn’t the way to go. Though it may have dipped in and out of popularity for centuries, the ‘tache has never completely disappeared from the upper lips of men across the globe. Starting with stone razors in the Neolithic times and ranging through the princes of Ancient Egypt, the early history of the moustache is relatively unknown, with the first documented moustache sported by an Iranian horseman in a 300 BC painting. In her recent book, Moustaches, Whiskers and Beards, Lucinda Hawksley unveiled the complex and dramatic history of the moustache, laying out the history of facial hair for public enlightenment.

Though the ‘tache existed in England in the medieval period, with knights often having to have their armour specially fitted to allow for the fairly extensive moustaches they grew – yes Monty Python and the Holy Grail did get it right, the facial didn’t really catch on until the Tudor period when a poorly enforced beard tax was established. The beard gradually became a symbol of status and the moustache started to rise in popularity with the working and middle-classes who couldn’t afford to grow out their beards and pay the associated taxes.

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However, the moustache truly established itself in British society in the early Jacobian era as the new court tried to establish a strong identity against the beards of the Elizabethan period, with Charles I promoting the handlebar and goatee combo that quickly became seen as the epitome of fashion and good taste. From here-on-in the ‘tache only grew in popularity across Western-Europe, so much so that Peter the Great instituted a ‘beard tax’ in 1698 to bring Russia society alongside the new Western-European models. This ban was enforced by the police, who had permission to publicly shave offenders using as much force as necessary in response to the wide-spread resistance of the new policy.

The obsession with moustaches continued to develop throughout the 1700s, until the early 19thCentury saw dramatic and extravagant ‘taches gracing the lips of European gentlemen, with facial hair becoming a social indicator of taste and wealth. This all changed with the celebrity of Lord Byron, who influenced a new generation to rebel against over-the-top facial hair and sport simpler, more elegant versions of the moustache, quickly becoming a symbol of the ‘radical romantic’ figure and remaining in popularity for decades to come.

War has proved massively influential in the shifting aesthetics and styles of a culture, and this remains true in the case of both fashion and facial hair. Following the Crimean war of 1853-56, beards made a dramatic comeback in the countries involved, with the many returning soldiers coming back with nearly two years of beard growth. The nations quickly associated beards with the idea of the ‘national hero’ and many men started to emulate this unintentional facial hair choice.

However, developments in warfare meant that styles had to change and the introduction of chemical weapons in World War One heralded the end of any facial hair, as gas masks wouldn’t seal properly around either moustaches or beards. On top of this, only certain ranks in the military were permitted to grow moustaches, making the facial hair a new symbol of power and status among British soldiers.

In reaction to the end of the First World War, Britain saw a massive boom in the popularity of moustaches as men who previously weren’t allowed to grow facial hair were once gain given freedom over their personal grooming. The moustache quickly became the aesthetic choice of the modern man, with the style becoming immortalised in pop-culture. A similar rise in moustaches also followed World War Two, with the handlebar moustache being celebrated as the new facial hair of heroes with it being the style most commonly associated with the fighter pilots.

Florian A. Rubner via Flickr

In 1940s Europe the ‘tache was as popular as ever, and surrealist painter Salvador Dalí’s moustache was one of his most iconic traits and became one of the most recognisable moustaches in history. That said, the moustache soon fell out of favour and despite some Hollywood representation, think Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind or Tom Selleck in Magnum, PI, the beard dominated the faces of the everyday men on the streets, and it became a bold, brave statement to wear a moustache.

In 2003 the moustache’s cultural relevance received an enormous boost from the birth of Movember. Developed in Australia and then spreading globally, the annual event slowly reinstates the moustache with every passing year, and the facial hair has now started to settle in back into Western culture with some celebrities, such as Michael B. Jordan and Henry Cavill, sporting it in their day-to-day look. Love it or hate it, the marmite of facial hair styles is coming back, and we all better be ready for when it does.

Image by Nico Bob via Flickr

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