Le Moustache

Over the past two months or so, I’ve been trying to figure out how the mustache became such a cultural gag. It seems like you can’t crack a magazine or flick on a TV show without stumbling into a wry aside, a visual pun, or an overzealous boast about the whiskers that are still most frequently sheared from a man’s upper lip. Not three months ago, the New York Times – as in the “All the news that’s fit to print” New York Times – printed an article about the stache’s resurgence. Hell, even last baseball season NY Yankee Jason Giambi grew a rally ‘stache that allegedly gave him supernatural powers to hit home runs. Makes you think that maybe the only reason Dumbo didn’t spirit glue his magic feather under his nose was because of the constant risk of sneezing.

The mustache. It's how they got an elephant to fly.

The mustache. It's how they got an elephant to fly.

This social curiosity has been on my radar recently for 2 reasons. The first and most personal (and perhaps least relevant) is the fact that my friends and I have been cracking mustache jokes since, yeah, I’ll say it, before mustache jokes were cool. It dates back to 2004, when, at the conclusion of a grad school writing class, my friend ended his screenplay about a stand-up comic with what he considered to be the throw-away joke, “And all I learned from the whole ordeal is never trust a man with a mustache.” The laughter in the room rippled throughout, but it wasn’t until long after the class dispersed that the truth behind why we were laughing slowly began to pool over our collective unconscious. “Yeah, what is up with the mustache?” “Why on earth does anyone think they look good with a mustache?” “Don’t truckers, low-lifes, and middle-aged Republican dads love mustaches?” Just the word – mustache – and its alternative spelling – moustache – sound ridiculous, with the goofy moo to start, then capping it all off with the squishy stache. It’s like you can’t help but flash your eyes wide, make a monkey face and twirl invisible whiskers when you say it.

Soon, the mirth derived from deriding the mustache bonded many of the male students of the class, with riffs like: “Oh, check that guy out. You know everything you need to know about him. He’s a liar and a thief with no God and no country.” Alright, we thought it was funny, especially as we continued to fine tune our dedication to the high art of alcoholism. But imagine, simply imagine our surprse when, of all places, SportsCenter cracked a joke sometime in 2k5 that went something like, A: “Uh-oh. He’s got a stache. You know what that means.” B: “Yup. Not a fair fight.” Egads, man! Had someone from the holiest of sports news programs been secretly wiretapping our drunken snark fests? Could we have a rat in our midst? (Personally, I thought it was Cramer.) Surely, these former comics cum sports anchors could not have found the mustache humorous of ther own observation… could they?

Alas, they had. And they were not the only ones. Mustache jokes popped up on websites, in magazines, in Will Ferrel movies. Entertainment Weekly did a top 10 movie mustaches (I’m pretty sure Tom Selleck from Quigley Down Under was in the top 5). The cool kids from Silverlake, Brooklyn, and North Oakland had developed something dubbed the “fashion stache”. Suddenly, a hairy lip was so funny, it was hip to show that you were physically in on the joke. And it appeared that Cramer was off the hook.

portrait of the blogger with a mustache. It should be noted that the stache was shorn after a painstaking 3 hours of looking like a criminal.

portrait of the blogger with a mustache. It should be noted that the stache was shorn after a painstaking 3 hours of looking like a criminal in my own home.

At first, we rejoiced in the sudden zeitgeist we appeared to have started. But then it became too much, like the kid who tries too hard to be liked, then says one joke that for once makes all his friends legitimately laugh, then proceeds to make that his only go-to joke for the next 10 months in his struggling desire to recapture that one moment of glory and acceptance. Sad, I know. But despite our sympathies for the little twerp, we couldn’t help but get sick of how much the mustache kept sprouting up in casual conversation… and how much it was being enjoyed by everyone else. See, the other half of our disdain was that the mustache was our joke, but now it seemed Mz. Stache had suddenly realized, with this new found confidence and attention, that she was way too pretty to spend four nights of the week with us and us alone. Damn, payback’s a whore.

But I could live with the ESPN guys. I could accept the top 10 lists. I could even look the other way while Will Ferrel cooed over my adulterous lover. But what I couldn’t suffer, what I still cannot suffer, is the hipster and his fucking fashion stache. (If you’re still counting, this is reason #2). Now, if you will – and you better – allow me to tell you why.

Hairy hipster scum.

Hairy hipster scum.

To get all fundamental up in this bitch, it is important to realize that, more so than any other facial hair configuration, the mustache is a clear and decisive choice. To explain through contrast: the beard in all its forms, while perhaps also considered a choice, can ultimately be chalked up to/rationalized by a) laziness (“What if I don’t have the $7 to buy new razors, Mom?”), b) need for warmth (“It’s not for me, doc. My wife here is the one with chapped cheeks.”), or c) a clear signifier of the owner’s ascendancy to, or even through, sexual maturity (“M4M – bears only”). Facial hair is one of the many, but perhaps the most visibly striking, signs of a man’s ability to start making babies. Furthermore, a man may shape or groom his beard into different forms to ascribe to a particular cultural aesthetic, but ultimately the ratio of exposed skin to beard will always heavily favor the latter.

Not so with the mustache. The upkeep to maintain the solitude of the stache seems inordinate to the benefits detailed above. Certainly, no one keeps a mustache due to a lack of motivation/finances to shave. Nor can it provide a commensurate amount of facial warmth to effort of upkeep. And the mustache as a sign of virility ultimately seems, in evolutionary terms, less potent than a full, manly beard. And yet, in regards to this last point, we have the porn stache. So how does something like that happen?

Now, should you read any further, I must qualify the following as mere conjecture, completely unsupported by any historical or empirical evidence found anywhere outside my own observations. But you don’t come to the blogosphere for facts, do you? Anyway, to continue, my guess is that the stache was once considered a sign of higher class living simply because it displayed how its possessor had both the means and education for self grooming. Indeed, just one look at any oil-on-canvass portrait of a French aristocrat in any given museum will tell you that the wealthiest subjects always seem to be those with the largest and most ornately waxed mustaches. Only in barbarian England do the kings have full bloody beards, while the cultured Gauls relish their curly-q’ed whiskers.

Of course, with any class conscious society, whether it be monarchical or capitalist, the lower classes will do their utmost to emulate their economic superiors in hopes of at least appearing of a higher stature. Consequently, what was once considered a mark of high breeding inevitably becomes a trope of the woefully downtrodden. Consider, for example the place of the mustache in American society not 5 years ago: either as a sign of authority (cops, upper management, Republican dads) or white trash (truckers, porn stars, thieves and liars).

It’s this second grouping that I believe appeals to the hipters found in the more metropolitan cities of our great nation. Consider the hipster aesthetic overall – second-hand clothing, mopeds, poor neighborhoods that consequently become slowly gentrified. All signs of poverty. It’s no secret or surprise that the bulk of hipsters, or to be more kind to individuals, the hipster aesthetic, with its fetishization of poverty, fringe cultural trivia, and “irony”, is born from a leisure class afforded by wealth. How else could the hipster community afford the time to seek out the most obscure music (“What, you’ve never heard of Nouvelle Vague? They’re only saving the music world from the capitalist bubble-gum bullshit.”) or the edgiest beat poet (“What, you’ve never heard of Ruth Forman? She’s only saving the poetry world from the capitalist bubble-gum bullshit.”) if they couldn’t, well, afford the time to do those things?** Furthermore, this fetishization of information and taste begets a cultural capital that is more valuable than money – taste is, after all, centered around social class signifiers such as the intangible ability to appreciate particular art forms and artists, which is in turn perceived to be acquired only through high, and expensive, education – thereby creating an isolated upper class within what is considered to be the counter culture (this term has a constantly evolving definition, but more on that for another entry).

Of course, because the hipster is overeducated and class conscious, s/he does not want to physically appear to be of a leisure class (because that wouldn’t be keeping it real, yo), so the best way to combat that social perception is to appear belonging to a poverty class. As the actor/performance artist Danny Hoch put it in his one-man show Taking Over (and I’m paraphrasing here): “The rich kids are dressing poor to look like they got street cred. And the poor kids are dressing normal so they can look rich.” Hence, the mustache. It’s for this reason, I believe, that it has even achieved the moniker of “fashion stache”. It completes a look, an ensemble of poverty, as a sign, in Mr. Hoch’s paraphrased words, of street cred.

Maybe it goes without saying that anyone who has actually experienced true poverty, of whom I can thankfully say I am not one, will tell you that there is no honor or virtue in it. And for this reason, I find the fashion stache more than insufferable. I find it insulting. I want to be clear that I am not targeting any one person here. I have several friends who have or have had mustaches, and I have to admit they all look/ed good. But I also know, perhaps because they are my friends, that they are not wearing the stache as a way of dressing down or looking a part. Nor are they doing it as an act of “irony”, or more specifically, an act of doing something without actually admitting that you like doing it. Instead, what I am targeting here is a cultural phenomenon, a social aesthetic, a choice. When a hipster makes a choice to grow the stache in order to go with his truck-stop hat and (factory faded) “Detroit is 4 lovers” t-shirt, he’s not just making the choice of going through the relative trouble of shaving the rest of his face; he’s making a choice to show some kind of solidarity with a class he has no business identifying with as a way of assuaging a new form of upper-class-counter-culture guilt. And for that, I say, shave that damned dirty peach fuzz off your face. Be a real man. And leave the mustache to the people who know what to do with it… namely your overbearing boss and the guy who’s gonna mug you outside your Echo Park apartment. And Tom Selleck.

don't mess with the best.

don't mess with the best.

**I should mention that I greatly enjoy both Nouvelle Vague and Ruth Forman, which hopefully goes to show that it isn’t about the specific things you enjoy, but rather how you present them – and yourself – to society.

Published in: on March 31, 2009 at 9:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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