The Moustache: From 20th Century Staches To the Present Mo-Ment

Man with a moustache wearing a straw boater
Image credit: mentatdgt from Pexels

November has rolled around again which, for nigh on two decades now, has meant that the clarion call to let your mo grow has officially sounded. I’ll get to the story of Movember in a moment, but first, let’s look a bit further back. Earlier this week, I wrote about the history of the moustache spanning the early modern period to about the turn of the twentieth century. It was, broadly speaking, a boom time for all manner of facial hairstyles, whereas the success of the mo in more modern times has been somewhat more spotty, but no less intriguing as a social phenomenon.

The First World War was really the inciting incident of the twentieth century, much more so than the turning of calendar pages from December 1899 to January 1900 was in real terms. The Great War ushered in the modern age with all of its ever-evolving tech, its military conflicts, geopolitical forces, and, in a few cases, its menswear. Among the myriad things shaped by WWI were the conventions surrounding the growth of facial hair.

The hirsute antics of the Crimean War (as discussed previously) were such that for many decades in its wake, beginning in 1860, moustaches became mandatory in the British Army. Accordingly, Command No. 1695 of the King’s Regulations stated, inter alia: ‘The chin and the under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip. Whiskers if worn will be of moderate length’.

At the outbreak of WWI in 1914, this prohibition was technically still in place. It didn’t hold up much longer, however, since gas masks didn’t work if fitted over facial hair, since they couldn’t gain purchase in order to seal properly. As a result, Lieutenant-General Nevil Macready abolished the rule in 1916 and, apparently not being a fan of moustaches, promptly got rid of his own the very same day to set the right example.

Lt Gen Sir Nevil Nacready
Lieutenant-General Nevil Macready before he ditched his mo
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

The Great Depression that followed the war was tough on a lot of things, moustaches included. W.C. Graham, who published How to Get a Job During a Depression in 1932, gravely advised that you should ‘shave off that moustache if you’re looking for a job’. He went on to say that your moustache might ‘help in getting a job as a “gigolo” or sheik, but there are practically no openings for them during a depression’.

If the moustache’s reputation suffered during the Depression, it certainly didn’t improve after World War II. The toothbrush variety, understandably, fell completely out of favour and, indeed, is now more commonly referred to as a Hitler moustache. 

It’s really only in the 1960s and ‘70s that we see another revival. As youth culture swept the Western world, so did ever-wilder whisker-growing. It’s at this point that we begin to see an odd splintering of signification as regards the moustache. In the past, fashions dictating facial hair growth accorded with whatever model of masculinity ruled at the time; whether it was the ideal of the bushy-bearded soldier or the finely waxed gent, the message remained fairly straightforward. But the rapid social changes and rebellious reappropriation harkened by the 1960s made for a splintering of sorts as far as the potential meaning of a moustache were concerned in the years to come. 

For example, by the 1970s you might have a hirsute former hippy and a straight-laced suburban dad sporting the same stache. Ditto the Working Joe and the Castro Clone. A great example of the confusion about the meaning of mos can be found in Walt Disney banning his theme park employees from growing moustaches (and beards or long hair, for that matter) for fear of any countercultural overtones, all while wearing a moustache himself for most of his life. 

Martin Luther King Jr
Martin Luther King Jr.
Image credit: Unseen Histories on Unsplash

It’s worth pointing out, as John Ortved did in a recent piece on moustaches in Esquire, that all of this tumult doesn’t map neatly onto Black communities. As he puts it, ‘generally speaking, in modern American history, the mustache has been a consistency, not a telegraph of any mode of temporal identity, for Black men.’ As a result, Black public figures — including Martin Luther King Jr., Al Sharpton, Eric Holder, Carl Weathers, Richard Prior, Eddie Murphy, Steve Harvey, Lionel Richie, Michael B. Jordan, and many others — can sport moustaches as a grooming expression rather than a potentially fraught and unstable signifier of identity as among white men. 

The late twentieth century was also the golden era of the moustachioed hero in popular culture. You can take your pick. There’s Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds, Sam Elliott, Cheech Marin, Elliott Gould in M*A*S*H, or Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian. Among these many hirsute heroes, perhaps none were as successful — or as irresistible — as Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck’s look on the show had every man within reaching distance of a Hawaiian shirt and ball cap in the 1980s growing a moustache in desperate imitation of his rugged good looks. So powerful was the appeal of Selleck’s stache that more than 15 years after the show’s debut he was still sporting it to undiminished effect while wooing Courteney Cox’s Monica on Friends.

Tom Selleck on the Magnum PI set
Tom Selleck on the set of Magnum P.I. in 1984
Image credit: Alan Light / CC BY 2.0

But there were precious few non-dads rocking any soup strainers in the years following Selleck’s heyday. It’s only in the mid aughts that moustaches make a return to mainstream-adjacent culture as a favourite style choice among hipsters. The freewheeling irony with which hipster handlebars were grown represented perhaps the apex of moustaches sending mixed messages.

It was, therefore, with a helpful dose of earnest intent that Movember entered the equation in 2003. Without getting rid of any of the fun inherent in moustache-growing, the initiative, dreamt up by two friends over a drink in Australia, is hosted annually across the globe to highlight men’s health issues. By growing a moustache during the month of November, it allows around 6 million so-called Mo Bros and Mo Sisters to raise funds for various health projects (You can check out the Movember site here).

In more recent times, along with sweatpants and buzz cuts, the moustache enjoyed something of a pandemic-era revival. Taking their cues from celebs like Harry Styles and Justin Bieber, growers the world over used the time at home and the relative isolation from colleagues and classmates (Zoom calls notwithstanding) to try out a new, whiskered look. 

And, with so many historic moustached looks out there, there’s ample inspiration for those test-driving a tache. They have adorned the faces of presidents (like William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt), writers (Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle), artists (Salvador Dalí and Frida Kahlo), musicians (Freddie Mercury and Sonny Bono) sportsmen (Clive Lloyd and Rollie Fingers), silver screen stars (Errol Flynn and Clark Gable), and comic characters (Rons Swanson and Burgundy). With all of those guys sporting a mo, who wouldn’t want to give it a go?