Whatever you call it, we thought the mustache was just something hipsters grew–and then we read Allan Peterkin’s entertaining, which definitively explores the social and political ramifications of a stylishly-groomed upper-lip.
We got in touch with Peterkin, who, ironically, can’t grow a ‘mo’ himself to find out more about the ‘stache, as well as the charitable month of Mo-vember…
Modern Gentleman’s Blog: What is it about being unable to grow facial hair that has driven you to write about beards and mustaches? Is it something like the Albanians, who, you wrote, have “27 words for the mustache” but banned the wearing of one?
Allan Peterkin: Aha! Very cheeky! But you are on to something. I’d rather my furry expressions be fulsome on the page than patchy on my face.
MGB: You mention in the book that the ability to grow facial is largely a pre-determined genetic decision. Are there any tried-and-true remedies to help jumpstart a crop of whiskers?
AP: Nothing fully tested, proven, or FDA-approved. Men have nonetheless been trying caffeine-laden shampoos, and medicated potions like Rogaine and Latisse (the eyelash grower). Best to ask your dermatologist for any updates.
MGB: How did you get started researching this book? Did you change up your approach from One Thousand Beards?
AP: I wrote One Thousand Beards ten years ago because I was looking to write a cultural history, and the goatee and its offshoots were suddenly everywhere. I was curious why facial hair was back in such a big way. There were lots of good historical sources on beards. Mustaches, on the other hand, were a little harder to research because they were scarcer and, for the most part, reviled. I started reading about the few, famous figures who had ‘staches (like Charlemagne), and learned what their faces were telling their contemporaries.
MGB: We read in your book that “The god Mercury was said to have invented the razor.” What’s the origin story there?
AP: He was always portrayed as smooth-faced (unlike all the other bushy gods), so I think it’s an extrapolation.
MGB: Aside from being sported by some of the evilest dudes in history, the moustache was also sported by Stravinsky, Ravel, Poe, Maupassant, Twain, and Zappa. Does the style just come down to personal preference, like French or barrel cuffs, or is the ‘stache a unique signifier of something?
AP: Certain cultures have always embraced the ‘stache–the English saw it as foreign (read “French,” like some of the men you mention here). It then became standard issue on both sides of the pond during Victorian times, and that’s the last time it was seen as completely “normal” and respectable. For post-war 20th Century men, growing a mustache has generally been a deliberate, eccentric choice–and usually became their trademark (think Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, Freddie Mercury).
There are exceptions: African American men, for example, have always embraced mustaches (think Martin Luther King). And not as a fad, but as an expression of style. My sense is that all those young men sporting mo’s nowadays expect to be asked about their upper lips. It’s the perfect conversation starter. These guys are generally playful, rebellious and extroverted.
MGB: It’s evident from your book that the presence or absence of a mustache has been a divisive point throughout history. Does it have that power anywhere in the world today? Or is the whole facial hair issue reduced to the whims irony and fashion?
AP: The mustache is causing a stir in the west nowadays because it’s been absent so long–seen as the trademark of fops, foreigners, fiends, and sexual outlaws. However, if you’re a policeman in India, you’ll get paid extra if you sprout a ‘mo’ because it makes you look more daunting (and of course the mustache has a long history of military associations). In the late 1990s the Wall Street Journal reported that you could actually read a Turkish man’s politics by the width, droop, or point of his ‘stache. I’m not sure if that’s still true today.
MGB: Could you tell us about Movember? What should we do to celebrate?
AP: The movement began in Australia and became a charitable foundation in 2004. Movember does a great job of raising money for, and sensitizing men to, specific health problems like prostate cancer. It spread like wildfire–I think because it’s fun, seasonal, and builds community among men (sort of like playoff beards in hockey). I’m happy to say Canada raised more Movember-dollars than any other country last year! Another good US-based hair-raising charity is Mustaches For Kids–it’s actually been running longer (since 1999). My advice? If you’ve got testosterone in your veins, grow a ‘mo’ for charity; if not, put on a sticky-stache, donate money, and spread the word!
MGB: Having written about both the beard and mustache, what is different about them, besides the obvious style?
AP: The mustache is an elegant compromise between shaving and growing.
MGB: What’s next in men’s facial hair? Or was the ‘stache the final frontier?
AP: The ‘stache may be the final, furry frontier. These things are really cyclical in history: One generation is bushy (like the Victorians), and then completely clean-shaven (like after both World Wars). We’re seeing the growing popularity of Mad Men chic-and neo-preppyism. This may be the beginning of the end (til next time!).