Is the ‘stache back?

Mustaches:  they’ve been on my mind lately because of all of the interest in Thomas Friedmans’ “The Mustache of Understandingmooky MOOC-fest earlier this week.  But I’ve also been seeing them riding some young men’s lips around my campus–not so many that I can say that it’s a look on the rise, but not so few that I can dismiss them all as U.S. Civil War reenactors, or actors in a play set in the 1970s.

Beards are always in fashion in Colorado–and unfortunately, a lot of younger men in Fort Collins appear to prefer the crazed Lubavitcher/Amish/Unabomber beard (see below) to the neatly trimmed kind.But until this semester, I never saw any younger men in town rocking a ‘stache unattached to or completely unassociated with any beard hair.

It flatters no one.

So, those of you who teach on college campuses:  is the ‘stache back?

50 thoughts on “Is the ‘stache back?

  1. There were some beards and mustaches grown and sported around campus this past November which is some sort of mustache/testicular cancer awareness month.

    I’m not so sure its a good look for most guys, especially in their late teens early twenties. They have not quite grown into their faces yet, so Mustaches look silly or a little premature.

    Year in, year out sideburns are a little more popular at Woebegone State University.

    I asked my hairdresser about this, and she thought it was a good call. She said that men without some sort of sideburns or facial hair ended up looking like little boys. I guess she has a point, but I’ll stay clean shaven thanks.


  2. Haven’t seen much sign of it. I haven’t had a free-standing moustache (independent of beard) since probably briefly in early graduate school, if that. In the geographical places I frequented, the autonomous ‘stache got discredited by its association with the sartorial practice of the NYPD during the scandals of the 1970s. It seemed to be about saying we hate hippie hair but we can loosen up too, and that sort of did it for ‘staches. And since I’ve pretty much bailed on the era of the “winter beard warning,” it’s basically over.

    It would be truly hard to live behind one of those ZZ Top “sharp-dressed” beards, I would have to think.


  3. Mustaches are totally a “thing” right now. I’ve got probably three or four students rocking them this semester (one a full-on *handlebar mustache*), and it’s definitely a hipster/tattooed-guy subset of the group that typically has patchy beards, wears newsboy caps and pilly sweaters, and smoke cigarettes – or even pipes! – outside the humanities building. Yes, they are all English majors. No, none of this has anything to do with the whole “Movember” thing where you don’t shave for a month in order to raise money/awareness for “man cancers”. It is, apparently, just an aesthetic decision.

    Also, there is a whole “mustache” fascination happening within the tween/teeny-bopper age grange wherein they buy things like earrings that are mustaches or tshirts with mustaches on them. It’s a whole “mustache, bacon, hipster” thing that these kiddos are into. I don’t understand it, but this is what I learned from my cousin Mary, who is a tween/teeny-bopper.


  4. Oh, and also: The goatee is totally the mustache of our generation – the generation of the parents of today’s college kids. The 90s are to today’s college students what the 70’s were to us.


  5. I haven’t noticed anything, but I pretty much only see grad students and medical students. On the merits, I think the only person who genuinely looked awesome with a ‘stache was Freddy Mercury. That motherfucker was handsome!

    Oh, and for anyone who is interested, I, too, posted on the Friedman MOOC gibberish:


  6. Just this week I was noticing in my Soviet survey class (all men, for some reason) that several of them are growing goatees. I doubt they’re imitating Lenin, but I’ll have to ask what’s up.

    Of course, the other thing that’s noticeable about male grooming at mid-terms is that many of them lost their hairbrushes under the bed some time ago. . .


  7. “it’s definitely a hipster/tattooed-guy subset of the group that typically has patchy beards, wears newsboy caps and pilly sweaters, and smoke cigarettes – or even pipes! – outside the humanities building. Yes, they are all English majors!”

    Dr. Crazy–that’s exactly the aesthetic that the ‘stache-rockers have out here too–the nerdy side of the hipster subculture. I think you’re right about the goatee/soul patch kind of below-the-lip facial hair for people in their 40s. My brother still wears his (orig. grown in the 1990s), very nicely trimmed, and he’s 42.

    Oh, and for anyone under the age of 20 contemplating a tattoo: they came back in with grunge in the early 1990s, so if you want to look like your parents, go for it!!!

    I would so much rather see a roomfull of mustaches than the crazy Lubavitcher/Amish weirdo bears that surround me. Yecchhh.


  8. For some good takes on the belated, “stayed at the party too long” version of the classic 1970s NYPD pencil-moustache, see anything from George Franz’s NYPD Blue catalogue of publicity stills; Bernie Kerik, working his beat in the ’70s and then on trial for corruption last fall; and even Joe Jonas, clowning around with the tourists while shooting a video the summer before last.


  9. It’s “Mustache March”: grow a mustache for the month to raise money for charity or just for fun. The guys at my local bike store do it.


  10. My husband is dying to sport one. So far, I’ve been able to quash his dream, but I’m not sure how much longer the threat of ridicule is going to work. Especially if they start to become more popular.


  11. I don’t remember ever having a student with one. I’m sure I have, but I can’t recall one. The goatee/mustache combo (and other similar hipster looks of the sort Dr. Crazy describes, but no independent ‘staches) is/are quite common.

    I know a good many men with mustaches, but they’re mostly at least a decade older than I (so, late 50s and above), and tend to be members of subcultures similar to the NYPD one Indyanna describes: men who came of age during the late ’60s/early ’70s, and didn’t want to be entirely out of touch with the currents of their generation, but pursued fairly establishment career paths (the military, other government work, the academy, though beards are a bit more common there).

    Looking ever further back, I had one great-uncle with a modest mustache, and a great-great grandfather (whom I did not meet, but of whom I’ve seen photos) with a magnificent waxed/curled one. I also saw a few pre-WWI style sideburn/mustache combos on young (grad-student-age) men last year, at a local history conference I attended, but the wearers were either reenactors, or grad students who seemed to be still sorting out the distinctions among academic history, public history, and reenacting.


  12. Now that you mention it, I have been seeing some ‘staches among young humanities nerds. The young science nerds, not so much. Interesting. Non-nerds I’m not sure about. Field study, coming up!


  13. I never heard about the facial hair for testicular cancer cures thing. But then, every month is beard month around my house: Decembeard, Janubeard, Febeard, Marchbeard, etc. Fratguy grew his beard at age 19–I’ve never seen him without it.

    Shaz: I have never heard about the facial hair fascination among tween girls. I agree with you that it’s weird, but whatever. An extension of earlier childhood pony fascination?


  14. According to Wikibeardia, the March ‘stache thing began with some fighter-jock in Vietnam who was an ace, and so when he grew a ‘stache, even the Sec/Def (MacNamara, who Lyndon Johnson called “the guy with all that Sta-Comb [tm] in his hair) while touring ‘nam would dare to tell him to lose the thing. When he rotated out and took a high level staff job at the Pentagon, the Air Force Chief of Staff immediately told him to lose it, and he did. March is supposedly the month when some military guys push the envelope on the shaving front in honor of this fellow. This is all from Wikibeardia, mind you.

    I’m not seeing *any* of this (the girls part) at the Japanese-themed youth pop culture gifts and accessories shop that I use back at my easternmost outpost.


  15. At this exact moment, I am bearded. But last week, I had a sweeping ‘stache, like Leiv Schreiber in the hockey film, Goon. My son’s teacher told me I looked like a porn star. And so the beard came back.


  16. Y’know, I’ve avoided writing the words “pR0n ‘stache” in this post on purpose–but it’s been in the back of my mind the whole time.

    I have to say that I would have been taken aback if advised by any teacher that I looked (or was groomed) like a pR0n star. How did you react in the moment?


  17. Given that this whole mustache and beard craze is a distinctly white male trend, I see it
    as a white male badge of honor rooted in a bygone era of unchallenged white male supremacy in Europe and America at a time of diminished white male hegemony/economic control in America.

    Think about it, the growing of a classic teamster or handle bar mustache, side burns, and the accompanying beard that represents the old world European masculinity of a Prussian War General, or the myth of the gentile, honor bound, brave Southern Confederate Colonel, to the pug ugly brawling ability of the original American Teamster. I say it’s a subconscious desire to bring back the “glory days”. And young white women seem to be huge promoters of it as well, i.e. mustache cupcakes, mustache parties, etc, and on Facebook and Yelp, pictures of white women displaying mock mustaches in “solidarity” and “support” are ubiquitous.


    Given that this whole mustache and beard craze is distinctly white male, I see it
    The badge of Hipster
    Growing this type of facial hair is a time commitment and takes work. In other words its an initiation process. Also those sorts of beards and mustaches are distinctly white male, which is part of the subconscious appeal. I’m not even sure if Black men can grow a teamster mustaches.

    What’s equally deep about the white male mustache craze is its embrace by young white women to bolster the wounded masculinity of their white male counter parts. On Facebook and yelp, pictures of white women displaying their solidarity and support are ubiquitous.


  18. But IM, aren’t beards a trend in black male fashion? Ouigi Theodore and Sam Lambert totally rock their beards. I have no idea what those men are thinking but it seems to me that they are claiming broader territory for a look that certainly in the past has been associated with specific not-white cultural contexts. Maybe I’m thinking of beards more generally than you mean in your comment.


  19. This has been going on for at least two years here in hip urban city, but not very frequently in my classes… I often see giant waxed handlebars at restaurants.


  20. IM makes a really good point–the fashion for Victorian/Edwardian grooming has the whiff of empire, doesn’t it? As he suggests, that may help explain the fascination with mustaches in white tween/young women’s culture that Shaz mentioned above.

    Now that I think of it, the facial hair thing is mostly a white thing on my campus. (This may also be related to the fact that my campus is overwhelmingly white–that is, the sample of Latino and AA men is pretty small where I work.) When I see nonwhite men with facial hair, it tends more to the neatly trimmed mustache/beard combo.


  21. I used to spend a lot of time with a Japanese/Euro man who had very long hair and in winter a long thick beard. We lived in a major metropolitan area and when other folks felt the need to comment on the beard, they usually called him Ayatollah. Much of the time this was meant fondly.

    I find it curious that failure to modify one’s body is seen as a statement while modification via a strict regimen of shaving is not.


  22. I’ve been thinking over the weekend that the vogue for men’s facial hair in the early 21st century is happening at the same time that most women are pressured to shave/wax/pluck ever more aggressively, just as young men’s clothing has become comically baggy and ill-fitting while young women’s clothing has become ever tighter and skimpier.

    I find myself nostalgic for my teenage years in the 1980s, when my brother and I fought over wearing the same polo shirts and jerseys. Yes, the 80s were hairy in the big-hair-on-top kind of way, but beards and mustaches were SO not in. It was a radically more androgynous time–young men even wore pink or lavender shirts and eye makeup, and young women wore boxy, big shirts and clothing that covered their bodies. Young women’s eyebrows were bushy, and young men shaved daily. Scruff among men and radical depilation among women were phenomena of the 1990s and 2000s


  23. Invisible man you are wrong. You are so wrong I am going to conclude you are like most “progressives” an idiot who is unaware that most Black people in fact live in Africa not the US. I work in Black Africa and I am seeing a lot of mustache or mustache and goatee combinations among students. I do not see the Amish beard look, however.


  24. Movember, where men sport some sort of facial hair (including a mustache) for a month in support of testicular cancer, has been quite big in the UK for the last few years. Less so in Australia. Many of my male relatives did it this year, so it seems to be on the up.

    On the topic of mustache fashion more broadly, facial hair of peculiar varieties (ie not a standard neat beard) has been ‘in’ amongst male students in the UK for a few years now. It’s definitely meant to be an ‘artistic’ expression- ie they sculpt it, not just a ‘too lazy/cool to shave’ thing. I suspect for many of these young men, it is a form of bodily fashionable self-expression, similar to the rise in tatoos (HUGELY popular in both UK and Oz at the moment), body sculpting more broadly (ie working out), and piercings. That is, it is responding to a trend for inserting ‘the body’ into fashion and plays of self (perhaps because the body is one of the last remaining bastions of uniqueness). But unlike tatoos and piercings, it can be neatly removed when they come to get job interviews in a few years. So, its both playing into seemingly quirky and ‘individualised’ fashion trends, whilst also appealing to an innate conservatism in some young people who don’t want to do anything too permanent to themselves.

    That women want fake mustaches is perhaps more intriguing; I have noticed that it’s more than just a cool symbol- part of the fun is in the ability to pick up the mustache jewellery and put in beneath you nose- so the cool is in the wearing. In this, it might be responding to this meme- This seems to be directly playing with the Victorian/Edwardian power plays discussed by Invisible Man. Perhaps a response to the current austerity regime in world politics?


  25. What Historiann said about the gender dynamics of bodily covering/uncovering. Plus gratitude for having gone to college in the grunge years, when cruddy jeans and plaid flannel counted as high fashion for all genders!


  26. Word, Ellie. I’m a little older than you, but you are right that the real gender bimorphism happened more in the mid- to late 1990s, not the early 1990s height of grunge.

    And, truth be told, both my male and female students at Baa Ram U. are more likely to be wearing jeans and sweatshirts than anything else. Sometimes the women dress up more, but it’s not an everyday thing like it is on some campuses (with women dressing up a great deal more than the men.) But outside of ROTC students who occasionally have to wear their dress uniforms, I almost never see men wearing shirts with collars, let alone ties or anything resembling jacket with a collar.


  27. If a lurker who is also on the fringes (as it were) of a mustache-heavy community may comment:

    I don’t think white-guy beards and mustaches are about nostalgia for empire so much as about the total emptying out of the idea of empire/colonialism in these social circles due to the insulating effects of whiteness – that is, I think it’s about whiteness and colonialism, but in an indirect way. Inasmuch as the mustaches represent anything other than fashion following, I observe two kinds: there’s the “old-timey Americana” mustache that is meant to signal a love of craft beer, bicycles, and artisan production; and there’s the Comical Victoriana Mustache which is sort of a pure hipster “isn’t it amusing that I am free to ornament my face with this thing that would get me fired if I didn’t have either a job in the arts or plenty of money”. In each case, the wearer in question simply doesn’t think about the lived realities of the past, which I’d argue is where the whiteness comes in – due to the rightward drift of culture and the insulation and privileged of certain kinds of whiteness, people lack the visceral repulsion at the aesthetic signfiers of colonialism. The past functions primarily as bag of floating signifiers from which to extract something novel as way of claiming social status.

    I’d also suggest that the trope of “porn star mustache” gives the hipster mustache a transgressive frisson, ie, “other prudish people are afraid of or criticize porn, but I am sexually liberated and think it’s cool to ‘look like a porn star'”.

    (I always assume that young white guys with stand-alone mustaches have bad politics on gender, race and/or class lines.)

    (I’d say there’s also a union-solidarity “old-timey” mustache which signals “I buy all my hipster goods union-made”, which has a complex interrelation with class, as for many people it’s about being well-off enough to afford this but there’s also a tiny subset of devotees who live this way out of ideological and aesthetic commitment and are often exploited as shop assistants, etc.)

    The idea of inserting the body into fashion – that is very sharp, but I worry that it is not so much about the body as the last bastion of uniqueness as about “the body as its own corset” – the intrusion of fashion and the “work” of being a capitalist subject into one more realm.


  28. I like your modification/explication of the mustache as nostalgia for empire, Frowner. However, that makes facial hair grooming just one more thing (among everything?) that white people take out of context and attempt to use to their own purposes as though those objects or language have no history (confederate flags, etc.)

    (I know you’re not making a claim that the mustache is *unique* in this respect.)

    Can you explain better your last paragraph? I’d like to follow your train of thought. I would argue that the body has always been part of fashion, not inserted into fashion, but I can’t quite make out your critique of that idea (if indeed you are critiquing it.)


  29. Frowner:

    the “old-timey Americana” mustache and the Comical Victoriana Mustache both represent eras in America when the “native” population were “erased”
    and Black citizens marginalized into spheres of invisibility. Not only was white male masculinity supreme, but “voracious” in terms of not just white women, but all women of color.


    you are making my case in that the Black males you mentioned are part of white hipster culture as Black “rarities”. Now of course Black beards and mustaches are common through out the African Diaspora, but this current mustache/beard craze is distinctly white male during a time of drastically changing economic forecasts for said class of white American males and strong nationalistic movements world wide challenging white male domination. I’m reminded of the back lash against the 1960’s when white males in Chicago blow up thousands of disco records and then engaged in a violent riot that was finally repressed by the Chicago police force.


  30. IM–I think Frowner acknowledges everything you say, but what she’s saying is that white people distance themselves from that reality by claiming that’s “not what they mean” and denying that things have histories because that’s the privilege of whiteness. Because they can! But of course they can’t (and I think you would agree with this point, too.)


  31. Hi Historiann,

    (I would say that the confederate flag is ideologized in a way that plenty of culturally appropriated things are not.)

    Maybe I overstated the “bag of images from the past” thing – after all, the mustache is alluring because it does signal something about the past, even if it’s just a vague sense of “old-timeyness” or Victoriana. I think what I was trying to get at is that white folks (or at least certain of us) have the privilege of narrating the past as fun and full of quirky news-of-the-weird oddments or beautiful and tragic vanished fashions and architecture, so even if we are thinking “ah, a mustache just like they wore back in the Raj”, we’re not thinking of the Raj in any meaningful way, and we’re not emotionally engaged enough with the history of colonialism – or the horrors of colonialism! or the resistance to colonialism! – to have a visceral response of distaste.

    In a way, white folks are “appropriating” their own history with the mustache – the mustache reappears but it is stripped of all historical complexity. I suppose that is actually the core of cultural appropriation…I’ve always been a little discontented with the easiest explanation (“this belongs to Culture X, no one else should use it”) because the minute you start looking at Culture X, it always turns out that Culture X isn’t actually a homogenous and clearly defined body with an unbroken cultural and aesthetic history stretching back to the year dot, so pointing to actual “ownership” becomes difficult. But maybe the flattening of history and power relations – which is what allows the appropriation! after all, if I actually understand the religious and cultural significance of the bindi, or the ugly colonial history of nostalgia-for-the-Raj, I am unlikely to be so into it – maybe that flattening is the core of cultural appropriation.

    Admittedly, it seems like many of us could be implicated in this line of reasoning – I have glasses reminiscent of your all-purpose 1920s/30s intellectual type – round and tortoise-shell-like, chunky enough to look hipster-ish. To what extent do I like them because they are nebulously past-y, thirties-ish, and to what extent is that an emptying out of the actual lived European thirties? Not a very fun time for a lot of people, and yet they’re just a fashion influence on my glasses.

    This seems to suggest some kind of futurism as the only ethical aesthetic way forward.

    It just occurred to me that I actually associate mustaches not so much with seventies porn but with seventies Gay Lib/gay clone looks. I wonder how (or if) that fits into all of this.

    As far as “inserting” the body into fashion – I meant to quote, since I was responding to this:

    …it is a form of bodily fashionable self-expression, similar to the rise in tatoos (HUGELY popular in both UK and Oz at the moment), body sculpting more broadly (ie working out), and piercings. That is, it is responding to a trend for inserting ‘the body’ into fashion and plays of self (perhaps because the body is one of the last remaining bastions of uniqueness).

    And that was just making me think about the ever-greater amount of body homework that we’re all supposed to do now, what with the working out and the shaving and the waxing and the nail art and the hair dye – and the way that this all changes constantly, so it’s not enough just to decide “I was born brunette, but I would like to dye my hair blonde” and then stay blonde until you decide to go grey – that we’re more and more enmeshed in “keeping up” aesthetically, market cycles move faster and that this applies to one’s very physicality, not just the stuff one slaps on top of it. Some Important Theory Person somewhere says something about going from wearing corsets to shape the body to using exercise to reshape the body “authentically” and how it’s the body becoming its own corset, but I cannot for the life of me remember who.


  32. Hi, Invisible Man!

    the “old-timey Americana” mustache and the Comical Victoriana Mustache both represent eras in America when the “native” population were “erased”
    and Black citizens marginalized into spheres of invisibility. Not only was white male masculinity supreme, but “voracious” in terms of not just white women, but all women of color.

    I completely agree! And I think those facts are precisely what makes the ahistoricism of this particular fashion so unpleasant.

    I think that one of the ways in which this comes forward into the present is white obliviousness/resistance to these histories. I think the “old timey” stuff is appealing precisely because white people both have been brought up not to think of these things and willfully don’t think of them.

    I think that learning and maintaining a sanitized/comic/trivia-oriented narrative of the past is how certain kinds of whiteness maintain themselves.

    It’s not just the absence of an accurate understanding of the past; it’s not covert-yet-semi-conscious nostalgia for the good times of the overtly imperialist and racist past; it’s the active replacement of history with a flattened/emptied out narrative which lends itself to being “old timey”. I’m not sure it’s always actual, overt denial of the past; it’s more “let’s create a cozy kitschy past precisely so that the question never arises”.


  33. Invisible Man:

    Have you ever been to an African university? Now that I am looking for it I noticed that a very large number of male students here have mustaches or mustache and goatee combinations. Maybe Ghana is unique among African countries, but still how is it a White thing? If you want to prove it is a White thing you need to show that it is not happening on a large scale among Black people in Africa as well as the US and that is simply not true.


  34. Frowner:

    in the immortal words of Chub Rock, you’ve “uplifted” us, to a higher level of clarity. It’s been a pleasure breaking cyber bread with you

    Otto, did you, not, read my post with respect to the African Diaspora and with the type of mustaches described, or are you too busy in “protection/ sic ’em” mode to bother with the details?


  35. Invisible Man:

    You keep claiming that male college students growing mustaches is a White thing. I have no White students. Not one of my 200 students this semester is White. Yet, lots and lots of them have mustaches they are also all in the 18-22 year range. So how is it a White thing? Like most “progressives” you act like Black only refers to those descendants of slaves living in the US and completely ignore the fact that most Black people in fact still live in Africa. Which is a big part of the reason why liberal progressives like Obama even when part African still have horribly racist policies towards the continent.


  36. Coming to this late, but this bit is for Frowner: The theorist who writes of the body becoming it’s own corset, through reshaping the midsection to be “hard” and shell-like, is Fashion historian Valerie Steele.


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