So why do men have moustaches, anyway?
Throughout history, facial hair has been lauded, derided, immortalised in art and even legislated against. The rise and curl of the moustache has never been straightforward.
Ultimately, whether to wear a moustache is a bold aesthetic choice that is as prevalent as deciding what to wear to work, what words you use around different sets of people (no, it is not okay for you to call your boss ‘brah’); or even what football team you support. It is an upfront declaration to the set of society’s rules you choose to follow.
Culturally, the moustache means different things to different societies. Here in the Middle East moustaches have been popular since Ottoman times when they were uniformly considered a sign of a high social status. If you have enough spare time to spend tending to your upper lip, then you were someone who had it made – or perhaps someone who can have it made for you.
Similarly, having a moustache was considered to showcase the wisdom of its owner. The bigger the ‘tash, the more knowledge it can hold. This idea tends to cross cultures with some of history’s most notable brains often accompanied by some rather exquisite facial hair: Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Salvador Dali, Friedrich Nietzsche… Frida Kahlo.
As a fashion symbol the moustache historically ebbs and flows via a continual series of global events. Times of success and growth lead to refined tweezering, while times of hardship and war bring with them gruff, unchecked beard growth.
During the late 17th Century, beards fell spectacularly out of fashion in Europe — helped in Russia by Tsar Peter the Great’s ‘beard tax’ — and as a result moustaches flourished. By the early 1800s moustaches were flamboyant, curled and often carefully sculpted to link up with heavy sideburns.
Conversely, the charisma of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ poet Lord Byron typically went against prevailing facial hair conventions, keeping his face free fresh except for a romantically curling, slender moustache. For decades the Byronic style was the sexiest look around, and moustaches ruled the roost — but all that was to change in 1854, with the Crimean War and the return of the massive beard.
When the war ended in 1856, returning soldiers were barely recognisable behind their vast crops of facial hair. Deciding that beards were the signs of heroes.
By the end of the 19th Century, beards were finally out of fashion, except amongst older, conservative men. The young man’s friend was the discovery of bacteria — and newspaper reports that linked germs with beards.
Throughout Europe and North America, new rules were made to prevent bearded men from handling food, and bearded hospital patients began to be shaved, whether they wanted to be or not.
World War I saw shaving refuseniks scuppered — because the seal on gas masks wouldn’t work with a beard. Yet for those who yearned to grow a moustache, times were hard — only certain ranks in the military were permitted to grow moustaches.
When the war ended, a moustache revolution began. Men who’d been forced to shave every day now grew them with abandon. The moustache had become the symbol of the modern man.
In India, one of the surprising hallmarks of British colonial rule is that legacy of the moustache. With whiskers continuing to be very popular with Indian men the caste system is widely credited to have had a significant cultural impact with the country’s facial hair, according to Chris Stowers, author of Hair India, A Guide to the Bizarre Beards and Magnificent Moustaches of Hindustan.
In Hollywood, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Ronald Colman sported moustaches that could make a heroine swoon — but as the world entered an economic depression, the moustache-on-the-street became an endangered species.
In 1932 WC Graham published How to Get a Job During a Depression. This was no time for frivolous facial hair: “Shave off that moustache if you’re looking for a job” he advised.
Following decades of insignificance, the moustache returned to the limelight in the 1980s. Tom Selleck’s moustache in Magnum, PI, won the hearts of housewives from Maui to Muscat. But even Selleck pales into insignificance alongside the world’s longest moustache, which belongs to Ram Singh Chauhan from India. When it was measured for the Guinness Book of Records, in 2010, it reached to 4.29m in length.
Tom Selleck and Ram Singh Chauhan aside, it still takes a brave — and thick-skinned — man to grow a moustache in today’s social media-obsessed world. Even despite the advent of Movember — the annual event where men cultivate moustaches to raise awareness for men’s health issues — centuries of history have shown that facial hair fashions can be as divisive as the platform shoe and high-waisted trousers, not bad for a bit of lip hair.