November 09, 2010

Hold On A Mo; or, Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

It is November and therefore the month of the moustache. This recent convention is in aid of prostate cancer research and awareness, and on that score it is unimpeachable. But what of the moustache itself? Clearly identified as a masculine symbol by the orchestrators of this movement, the moustache is nevertheless of uncertain historical status. At the very least, Jeeves was highly circumspect about matters of the upper lip, and that should give us pause. Of course, the ladies of the Wodehouse world thought otherwise, but they were universally awful and had poor taste. Further pause. By no means do I suggest that P.G. tips offer the best insights into the manly life, but then again, they aren’t far off.

Barbarian lipwear, c. 300 BC.
The first reported depiction of a moustache was on the face of a Scythian warrior. The civilised world at that point in time would doubtlessly have considered him a barbarian. This is an inauspicious beginning. Still, the Greeks coined the thing, calling it mystax, and her philosophers were no strangers to the cultivation of facial hair. Our modern associations with the hairy lip don’t help settle the thing, with everyone from Ned Flanders to Stalin to confuse us.

The most sensible words on the subject can be extracted from Household Words, via the pen of Dickens, in 1853. We must be on our guard, for Dickens was not averse to quackery and nonsense, and we can quickly disregard his arguments about the bodily expulsion of carbon and the body being thrown into chemical imbalance by daily chin scrapings. More persuasive are his allusions to the symbolic importance of the thing:
The idea that there existed a connection between a man’s vigor of mind and body, and the vigor of growth in his beard, was confirmed by the fact that Socrates, the wisest of the Greek philosophers, earned pre-eminently the title of the bearded. Among races of men capable of growing rich crops on the chin, the beard has always been regarded more or less as a type of power… The beard became naturally honored, inasmuch as it is a characteristic feature of the chief of the two sexes (I speak as an ancient), of man, and of man only, in the best years of his life, when he is capable of putting forth his independent energies. As years multiply and judgment ripens the beard grows, and with it grows, or ought to grow, every man’s title to respect.
Still, this deals in zones rather lower than that upon which we currently gaze, and Dickens hastens to draw our attention to the mistaken mystax of the nineteenth-century aristocrat. The association of whisker and rank was stamped into the popular imagination, so that after the revolutions of 1848 the Germans did away with their hairy adornments so as not to be confused for members of the old order. The Hungarians, however, continued to place great esteem in the thing, and famous Generals sported moustaches that might have been caught under foot. Despite this nonsense, Dickens averred that it was better for Englishmen to lay down their razors, for it would save them a year over a lifetime. And this, ultimately, speaks against the moustache, for it saves no shaving time, and indeed probably makes for fiddly shaving and, if you will, mo’ maintenance. It should be beard or nothing, and even then it should be tended and trimmed, just as the philosophers insisted.

I dont aspire to any of these labels.

All this having been said, and with my former assertions about the joys of shaving in mind, I am attempting to grow a moustache, if only to demonstrate to myself that the judgements of history are not wrong. I doubt it will last, for Mrs. VB is not a fan, and there are certain acts that should not be compromised, as this fellow in 1855 discovered:

A caution during the approaching festive season to young gentlemen who wear sharp-pointed moustaches: Pretty cousin: What a tiresome great awkward boy you are! Just see how you have scratched my chin! (Punch)


  1. I'm a recent moustache adopter myself (about 3 months, give or take) and it is a tricky adornment at best. To most, you appear a fool, to some a mystery and to a scant few a symbol of virility. I might even go so far as to say that, more than revealing what type of man the wearer is, it reveals what type of woman the female observer is. In fact, I didn't discover how much my wife appreciated it until I threatened to shave it off.

    Why do I keep it, then, if it's worth is dubious at best? Not because of my wife (she loved me before the mo'; she'll love me after) and not because of the time invested (unlike my head, my upper lip seems to be getting hairier as it ages). Honestly, I'm not sure why, but for now, with a job that requires me to be equal parts clown, rock star and wage-slave, I can afford a whimsical upper lip.

  2. I agree, Hatchet, the moustache seems to be the perfect note of irreverance for someone in your line of work. And now that I am cultivating my own hairy crop, I'm starting to see them everywhere on the faces of people I should otherwise have thought discerning. I shall persevere with it for a while yet.

  3. "And now that I am cultivating my own hairy crop, I'm starting to see them everywhere on the faces of people I should otherwise have thought discerning."

    Moustaches are a little like Honda Civics in this way.


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