The Handlebar. The Toothbrush. The Chevron. The Walrus. The Zapata. The Imperial. The Horseshoe. Through the centuries, there have been many names given to the tuft of hairy growth adorning a man’s upper lip. It has been adored, reviled, encouraged, mandated, and even banned. It has been worn by celebrated physicists, international sex-symbols, and notorious dictators. And thanks to Movember, the international charity which raises money and awareness for a variety of men’s health issues, the oft-maligned mustache is enjoying a surge of popularity that hasn’t been seen since its heyday in the 1970s. So, as you cultivate your own, take a moment to get educated with our handy guide to great moments in mustache history – compiled with the help of Allan Peterkin, professor, physician, mustache historian, and author of One Thousand Mustaches: A Cultural History of the Mo.
500 BCE ~ An elaborate carpet is woven in ancient Scythia, bearing the oldest surviving image of a man with a mustache.
Unearthed in the early 1960s by a team in the far east of Russia, the 2m x 2m carpet was likely made to adorn the funeral carriage of a high-ranking Scythian nobleman. Scythians, loose-knit tribes of Iranian horsemen who inhabited central Eurasia between the 7th Century BC and 4th Century AD, were known for their warlike behavior, as well as their flamboyant outfits, which included ornate belts, flashy jewelry, and – of course – mustaches.
27 BCE ~ Ancient Gauls become early champions of the mustache.
“The nobility are shaved but wear mustaches,” Greek historian Didorus Siculus later wrote in his Bibliotheca Historica, “which hang down so as to cover their mouths, so that when they eat and drink, these brush their victuals or dip into their liquids.”
The long, drooping mustache was reserved for Gallic noblemen (lower-class men wore beards), and was considered an unusual fashion at the time. These, and their long, often dyed-red hair, caught the attention of Julius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul in the 50s BCE, and he would often force Gallic chieftains to cut their hair as a sign of submission. The mustache, however, proved to be resilient, remaining in fashion in Gaul until at least AD 290.
1447 CE ~ King Henry VI issues a mustache ban, effective across the entire British Empire.
“No manner of man that will be taken for an Englishman shall have no beard above his mouth,” reads the text of the royal decree, “that is to say, that he have no hairs on his upper lip so that the said lip be once at least shaven every fortnight or of equal growth with the nether lip; and if any man be found amongst the English contrary hereunto, that then it shall be lawful to every man to take them and their goods as Irish enemies.”
Under Henry, the monarchy would become increasingly unpopular and, following a mental breakdown in 1453, the king would spend the last years of his reign both imprisoned and insane.
1854 ~ Mustaches get a bump from the medical establishment, kick-starting almost a half-century of unbridled mustache enthusiasm.
“There can be no doubt that the moustachio is a natural respirator, defending the lungs from the inhalation of dust and cold,” Erasmus Wilson wrote in the pages of The Westminster Review, “and it is equally, in warm climates, a protection of those parts against excessive heat.” His article went on to praise the virtues of a robust mustache, claiming that it was also a keen natural defence against toothache, colds, mumps, and even bronchitis.
The Victorian “Mustache Movement” continued to increase in popularity throughout the latter half of the 19th century. By the year 1900, not a single member of the Harvard Graduating Class wore a beard.
1860 ~ With Command No. 1,695, the British Army introduces regulations which forbid soldiers of any rank from shaving above their top lip.
“The hair of the head will be kept short,” the text stated. “The chin and the under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip.”
“Most militaries have allowed a short, tidy mustache,” Peterkin notes. “And the higher your rank, the bigger the mustache could be. Even today, in some places in the world – in India, for example, if you’re a cop, and you grow a mustache, you’re paid more, because it’s seen as a strong, virile male expression.” Mustaches would remain compulsory in the British Army until October of 1916.
1909 ~ The advent of modern germ theory all but destroys the mustache.
“Mustache Harbors Germs: Kiss Leaves Deposit of Bacillia on French Woman’s Lips,” read a headline in the Aug 7th edition of the New York Times, quoting a French study. “A Parisienne allowed herself to be kissed by a clean-shaven man and then by a bearded man. It was shown that the clean-shaven man had deposited a small quantity of harmless particles. His rival’s kiss had colonized the lady’s lips with the bacilli of tuberculosis, diptheria, pneumonia, and numerous other unpleasant microbes.”
Popular medical journal The Lancet would later confirm the theory. This would prove to be the final nail in the mustache coffin; Harper’s Weekly even published “The Passing of Beards”, a lament on the disappearance of a proud facial hair tradition. That same year, William Howard Taft would be inaugurated, becoming the last president of the United States ever to sport a mustache. By the 1920s, mustaches had all but vanished.
1932 ~ The mustache takes another beating when it’s labelled a barrier to employment.
In How to Get a Job During a Depression, W.C. Graham writes, “Shave off that mustache if you’re looking for a job. A mustache … [may] help in getting a job as a ‘gigolo’ or sheik, but there are practically no openings for them during a depression.”
1944 ~ A facial hair schism grows in American society, amidst discussion over the character and necessity of Republican Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s mustache.
“I have heard dozens of women make the same criticism of the gentleman from New York,” Helen Essary wrote in the pages of The New York Times. “It takes from the seriousness and strength of his face. Moreover it will not help with the women vote… You see only the mustache. You remember only the mustache.”
Discussion of Dewey’s mustache would continue into his second presidential campaign in 1948. However, following his narrow defeat by Harry S. Truman, no serious presidential contender would ever again sport facial hair.
1972 ~ A watershed year for cinematic mustaches. Action-comedy Fuzz hits the screen, featuring the first (mustached) appearance of Burt Reynolds.
Though it’s the first onscreen appearance of Reynolds’ trademark facial hair, he (and it) had previously appeared in the now infamous 1972 edition of Cosmopolitan, where Reynolds debuted as the magazine’s first nude male centrefold. A clean-shaven Reynolds had appeared for years in both film and television (including, famously, Deliverance), but after Fuzz, the actor’s mustache would remain a crucial part of his image for more than 30 years.
Less than four months later, another famous mustache would debut on the big screen – attached to actor Tom Selleck, in the film Daughters of Satan.
“In the 70s, it really got sexualized,” Peterkin explains. “You had the swinger mustache, the Porn ‘Stache. It also became a gay signifier – all the men on Castro Street in San Francisco, they had mustaches. And the average guy started saying: ‘What am I actually saying if I wear a mustache? I don’t want to be misread.’ So the mustache all but vanished, virtually, after the 70s. And it was gone for a very long time.”
1999 ~ A red-letter year for mustache charity, which includes the founding of Mustaches for Kids and the birth of the original Movember.
“The title was invented by some young men in Adelaide, Australia, who were raising money for the SPCA,” Peterkin explains. “They coined the phrase in 1999, and it was later more or less taken over by the group who now call themselves Movember. This is the true origin of the charitable mustache, and that hasn’t always been appreciated.”
Mustaches for Kids has since raised $2.5 million for various children’s charities, and the current incarnation of Movember has more than 90 employees, six offices on three continents, and, in 2012, was listed as one of the world’s top NGOs by the Global Journal.
In the future ~ Millions of whiskers face the razor as everyone attempts, once again, to express their individuality.
“Throughout history, it’s always been cyclical,” Peterkin explains. “In the 50s, you had beatniks, in the 60s, you had hippies. In the 70s, you had the mustache, in the 80s, you had stubble. There were isolated pockets of very specific facial-hair. And I think we’re just about to hit the end of this wave, which began in the 90s. We’re twenty years in – a little over twenty. And I predict that we’re probably going to go back to clean-shaven in the next couple years. Fashion always tells us to do what’s not common. So, if too many guys have beards, it loses its impact. Back in Victorian times, when everyone had facial hair, what did Oscar Wilde do? He shaved, as a statement, to say ‘I’m different, I’m unique, I’m creative’. So, I think we’re probably going to see – in the next two to five years, a return to more of a fully-shaven look.”
Learn mo history with Peterkin’s One Thousand Mustaches: A Cultural History of the Mo.