A hairy history of the moustache
It’s autumn and that means it’s ‘Movember’, the time of year when many men stop shaving and let their moustaches grow free. But what’s the history of the moustache? Dr Alun Withey explores
Like many other facial hair styles, the moustache has a long and complicated history. In some periods it has symbolised manly strength, modernity and bravery; in others it was decried as an affectation of fey young men. It’s easy to write facial hair off as something that is quirky or irrelevant, but it often tells us a very great deal about individual men across time, as well as shifting attitudes towards masculinity and the male body.
Each period of history often has its own facial hair style. In Tudor Britain, the ‘spade beard’ – characteristic of men in many portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger – was popular, along with the pointy ‘stiletto’ beard. But moustaches were also in. One popular style associated with wealthy elites was a very thin, slight moustache that required constant work to keep it looking trim. During the 17th century, the ‘Van Dyke’ style of pointy beard was replaced by a fashion for moustaches, most notably modelled by Charles II.
In the 18th century, however, moustaches, along with facial hair more generally, were frowned upon across Europe. They became associated with a rougher form of manliness, more suited to the rural labourer than the society beau. Apart from a few sporadic outbreaks of lip hair around 1800, the Georgian man was generally smooth-faced.
Just before the ‘beard movement’ of the early 1850s there was a mini ‘moustache movement'
When we think of the 19th century, it is perhaps the huge beard that we most associate with the face of the Victorian gentlemen. It’s sometimes forgotten that, just before the ‘beard movement’ of the early 1850s there was a mini ‘moustache movement’. By the mid-19th century British men had been largely beardless for around 150 years. Suddenly though, facial hair made a remarkable comeback, and the moustache was held up as a badge of manliness.
And the importance of the moustache stretched beyond aesthetics – it was even ascribed health benefits. A slew of books and articles emerged, extolling the healthiness of moustaches (and indeed beards) as a natural filter or ‘respirator’, catching dust and germs before they could get up the nose and into the bodily system, and warming incoming cold air before it could damage the lungs. One article even described the moustache as nothing less than “nature’s vigilant sentinel around the mouth”!
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The early decades of the 20th century brought another volte face, as moustaches came back into fashion as a symbol of modernity and youth, and they remained popular in most decades throughout, with significant moustache trends in the 1940s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The turn of the 21st century has seen them fall from favour, although there are recent signs of a resurgence in popularity, with celebrities and sports stars seen wearing them.
So why have men constantly returned to the moustache – and indeed facial hair more generally? One reason is simply changing ideas about masculinity and what constitutes an ideal or acceptable male appearance. Fashions change – for many reasons, one of which is a reaction to what has gone before. Concerns about the male body are also often in the mix. As an innate and timeless feature of the male body, facial hair is sometimes a touchstone that men unconsciously turn to at times when masculinity or gender are in flux.
Another constant motivation for men throughout history has been the emulation of a role model or hero. For example, copying the facial hair style of a male monarch was an obvious way for courtiers, elites and even ‘ordinary’ subjects to show loyalty.
Also, moustaches have long been associated with the military and had been a feature of some French and German regiments since the 18th century. Facial hair was considered an outward sign of inner strength, and a symbol of martial manliness. It was even supposed that putting your most hirsute recruits at the head of a marching column would make enemies quail.
In Britain, part of the reason for the resurgence of moustaches among civilian men around the mid-19th century was in imitation of the fine pairs of moustaches adorning the faces of returning troops from the Crimean War. Any man wishing to mimic the ultra-masculine look of a soldier had only to stop shaving! So important was the moustache as a military symbol that atom 1860 it was a standing order in the British Army that soldiers had to wear one. This was only repealed in 1916 by General Sir Nevil Macready, who came to hate them. In the 1940s, the ‘fighter pilot’ moustache brought another aspirational military style to emulate.
From the 20th century, moustachioed heroes began to emerge in other forms, most notably film stars. In the 1920s and 1930s the moustache was a key feature among the new breed of swashbuckling heroes such as Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable and others, often well-groomed, thin and waxed. Even the ‘toothbrush’ moustache made famous by Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy had its place!
In the 1970s and 1980s, movie stars such as Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck, musicians from Lionel Richie to Lemmy, and sportsmen including Hulk Hogan and Nigel Mansell (with an honourable mention to Merv Hughes) have all made the moustache an essential part of their ‘look’.
Moustaches, then, have a long history, one that is intrinsically bound to prevailing ideas about manliness, the male body and appearance. Whatever the motivations of individual men are for growing a moustache or a beard, they are seldom neutral, and involve multiple decisions, time, and often effort in the form of styling and grooming.
So, to all those about to embark on their Movember journey, perhaps it is fitting to leave the last word to the most famous of moustache wearers, Hercule Poirot: “If you must have a moustache, let it be a real moustache– a thing of beauty such as mine.”
Famous moustaches from history
Vlad the Impaler
Portraits of Vlad the Impaler – the original inspiration for Dracula – show him with a magnificent specimen of a moustache, thick and straight, giving him a formidable appearance
Kaiser Wilhelm II
Kaiser Wilhelm II was notable for his large and elaborately styled moustaches, curled up at the ends. Apocryphal stories claim that he deliberately styled it in the shape of a ‘W’ but what is certain is that it would certainly have taken effort to maintain
Charlie Chaplain's famous ‘toothbrush’ moustache is often regarded as inspiring Adolf Hitler to grow a similar example
The famous American lawman Wyatt Earp was perhaps less well known for his facial hair than he was for his abilities in gunfights. But images of Earp show him with a fine style of moustache known as a ‘handlebar’
As might be expected from a surrealist, Salvador Dali’s thin, waxed and upturned moustache was itself a work of art. In a 2010 survey for a British newspaper, Dali’s moustache was voted the most famous of all time
Although clean-shaven when he was younger, Queen’s frontman is often most readily associated with his moustache, a style called the ‘chevron’ – a key part of the gay ‘Castro clone’ look of the 1970s and 1980s
Dr Alun Withey is a senior lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, specialising in the history of medicine and the body
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