Will moustaches ever be as popular as beards?

Brad Pitt

With Movember on the way, and everyone from Brad Pitt to Patrick Grant sporting them, it’s time to ask if the moustache will ever be more than a charity stunt or ironic styling for hipsters?

November’s fast approaching, a month when, like leaves on railway tracks, moustaches are sent to test us. For the past 11 years, November has become synonymous with Movember, an honourable but pervasive Australian-born campaign aimed at drawing awareness to men’s health issues by encouraging them to grow a moustache for one month only. It’s a visual campaign based on the premise that growing one is so challenging to male vanity it’s only worth doing if a charity is involved.

Although we cannot directly blame Movember, the success of the campaign (this year, the campaign is predicted to raise over £345m globally) sits in direct correlation with the waning coolness in moustaches. For the past decade, anyone with a moustache before or after November has risked becoming a punchline.

But perhaps that’s about to change. While almost half (42%) of us believe it is “fashionable for men to have beards”, almost the same number say “they feel pressure from others to keep their facial hair neat and tidy”, a facial kit box ticked only by the moustache.*

The trajectories of moustaches and Movember are now crossing, in a year when facial hair became the aesthetic calling card of hipsters: “I don’t know about this whole hipster association,” explains Travis Garone, one of the original founders of Movember. “All I know is that beards seem to be for cool kids but moustaches are harder to pull off and that’s why we’re sticking with them. They require confidence – they’re more of a statement.” In light of this, there are as yet no plans to co-opt the beard – imagine! – but it still raises a good question. Why did beards become cool, and moustaches not?

Despite being defiantly favoured by some men of a certain crowd today, the moustache has been abandoned or at least forgotten in the wake of hipster-bashing. While the beard has since become a byword for an overarching trend of retro-appropriation before peaking, explosively, over the summer – fashion historians should note we are currently chin-deep in Peak Beard – the moustache slipped through the follicular net, lost and forgotten. Celebrities do have them – Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Justin Bieber, even Patrick Grant of The Great Sewing Bee who notably went from beard to tache between series – but they’ve simply not been tarred with the same grooming brush as the beard.

In 2009, American journalist Wesley Morris suggested a correlation between the decline in moustaches and a general, waning masculinity: “You could say that a huge swath of American men have simply misplaced the self-confidence required to wear a single strip of hair on their lips,” he wrote in the Boston Globe, implying that now (or at least in 2009) the only people who succesfully wore moustaches – hipsters – were embarrassments: “It’s facial hair in quotation marks.”

There is some truth in this. Historically, beards are couched within two key subcultures: hipsters (now) and men bubbling with masculinity (then). Moustaches, however, have had a rockier journey. From cowboys, Tom Selleck and Groucho Marx through Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Charlie Chaplin, Poirot, Ron Burgundy, John Waters and Ryan Gosling on set of The Nice Guys, they have no fixed association and no ambassador, or at least not a nice one. Bora Esen, managing director of male barber The Groom Room in Dulwich, south London, thinks this is the problem: “People definitely, subconsciouly associate them with certain historical figures.” He should know. Of his eight thousand regular clientele, only three have moustaches, “and they’re the old boys”. It was only in the late 1970s and 1980s that they found a semi-permanent home in porn-friendly irony. But even that association backfired: whenever the media ran a negative story about Dov Charney, former chief executive of American Apparel, they used an image of Charney with his tache – this despite the fact that his dates back to 2004 and he only had it for less than nine months. “People were really attached to that image,” he told the New York Times.

Things took a turn for the worse in the late noughties when the moustache was co-opted by Generation Paperchase appearing naff-stalgically on mugs, notebooks and temporary finger tattoos, the new – shudder – Keep Calm and Carry On. This isn’t ideal for long-term wearers. Stylist and music consultant Phil Bush first grew his moustache in 2003, coincidentally the year Movember started. “It complemented my personal style and I needed something to help me stand out.” He has no plans to trim it off – “I’d feel rather naked” – although now he appreciates he is “just another prickly face in the crowd”.

Pop culture aside, perhaps the main sticking point is this comparison between the two. Of course, beards and moustaches can co-exist “but moustaches have definitely suffered because of the increased popularity of the beard,” agrees Esen. “If you’re going to grow something, it’s going to be something which is easy to maintain.” Beards don’t require much grooming, while moustaches are in need of constant upkeep – and this goes against everything modern hipsters stand for. It’s also worth remembering that while beards have the dual effect of keeping one warm while hiding one’s chin, moustaches are almostly completely pointless, serving no purpose other than to reflect the fact that you can grow one.

Clive, a 27-year-old journalist from Peckham, grew his when he was “young, beautiful and fresh-faced but wanted to look older and more mature. Then I got rid of it when I started to look older and wanted to maintain an air of youthful beauty.” Of course this does suggest that they do serve one purpose – to age their wearer (beards have the power to age a man a decade, while moustaches are gentler on this process) and this was certainly a driving factor for Michael Evans, drummer in east-London band Citizens!, who grew his tache in 2010 because of “self-employed procrastination” ie boredom, but is reluctant to shave his off because it would make him look younger.

Of course, none of this helps if you can’t grow one at all: “It requires a thin top lip and a wide philtrum,” explains Esen. “Most people don’t realise that until it’s too late. Also, unlike beards, they don’t suit everyone.” Bieber, who wore one to the fashion weeks, is a case in point. But then for many men, this is the draw: moustache-wearers are the last remaining male subculture, a tribe naturally culled by growth hormones – and hell, we all want what we can’t have.

*Survey - Mintel market research

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Morwenna Ferrier, for The Guardian on Tuesday 28th October 2014 18.40 Europe/London

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