5 Nov 2021

A brief history of the moustache

It is November, and all over the country men are supporting the Movember Foundation, growing moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues, such as prostate cancer and testicular cancer.

The upper lip has played a stirring role in British history. Indeed, the British Empire was built on the stiff upper lip, a term used to describe British imperturbability and sang-froid. There are numerous apocryphal tales of the phlegmatic reactions of Britons to disaster and their refusal to react histrionically (or at all) to national disasters, crises and tragedies.

But when was the stiff upper lip adorned by the moustache? Hirsute upper lips have ebbed and flowed with fashion. They can be traced back to Celtic hill warriors and pharaohs and have intermittently appeared on the faces of British monarchs, perhaps reaching their apogee in the extravagant Restoration beard and upswept moustache sported by King Charles II.

However, by the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain was poised on the brink of its imperial adventure, moustaches were decidedly out of fashion. They were associated with outlaws and pirates, and our great military heroes, such as Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, were clean-shaven and upstanding. When smooth-faced British troops first arrived in India, they were looked upon with incredulity. The Indians associated moustaches with bravery and masculinity and wrongly dismissed clean-shaven British soldiers as effete and ineffective.

This all changed when soldiers began to return from the Crimean War in 1856. They had withstood over two years of hard campaigning and rough living, and had dispensed with their razors. Sporting bristling moustaches, bushy sideburns and luxuriant beards, these conquering heroes exuded machismo, and facial hair instantly became de rigueur for Victorian gentleman, who sported an array of extravagant moustaches and beards. The Army even made moustaches compulsory: King’s Regulation No 1695 states that ‘the chin and under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip’. The stiff upper lips of British empire-builders were now inevitably topped by moustaches.

This began to change in World War I, however, when it was found that facial hair prevented gas masks from forming an airtight seal on the wearer’s face. Moustache-wearing ceased to become compulsory in the British army in 1916 and began to go into decline. In the 1930s movie idols like Errol Flynn and Clark Gable wore dashing pencil moustaches, and some debonair gentlemen followed suit. But for the most part, in the depression-era 1920s and 1930s moustaches were either seen as a gentlemanly fad, or associated with vaudeville notions of villainy and ‘spivs’ – twirling the ends of the moustache was a universally recognised code for untrustworthiness.

Toothbrush moustaches did not survive World War II, for obvious reasons. But this conflict saw the resurrection of the flamboyant handlebar moustache, with waxed tips. Once again the moustache had become synonymous with courage and derring-do, and handlebars were much in vogue amongst fighter pilots.

Since then the fashion wheel has turned again and again. The hirsute 1970s and 1980s were a golden period for all manner of moustaches; clean shaven upper lips were the order of the day in the minimalist 1990s. The last decade has seen a new generation exploring the potential of facial hair, often with exuberant and eccentric results. The sun may have set on the British Empire, and our stiff upper lips may have become more wobbly, but they will certainly be adorned by a fantastic array of moustaches this November.

Five Moustache Maintenance Tips

•Wield a trimmer to maintain the shape of your moustache

•Use small moustache scissors to snip away stray hairs.

•Use moustache wax to maintain shape.

•Tidy up stray hairs with a small moustache comb.

•Wash your moustache using a gentle cleanser.


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