James Werrell

Hey, is that a caterpillar crawling across your lip?

James Werrell
James Werrell aburriss@heraldonline.com

My brother grew his mustache back.

His upper lip had been hairless for some time. A few years ago, his mustache went from bushy to well trimmed to pencil-thin – and then disappeared altogether.

Now, however, he is back in full cowboy mustache mode, which, I think, is to be applauded. We need more men with mustaches. Women, too, if they’re in a Frieda Kahlo state of mind.

My other brother, by the way, who once sported a ’stache, remains bare-lipped.

I, for the record, grew a mustache in college and cut it off only once in my 30s, a lamentable, spontaneous act of stupidity. I started growing it back in a few days, and have never cut it off since.

Why should you care about my mustache and those of my family members (my dad and his dad also had mustaches for most of their lives)? The only reason I bring it up is in the larger context of male fashion.

In short, where did all the mustaches go?

There was a time in the 1960s and ’70s when facial hair of all sorts, but the mustache in particular, was almost universal. There were Fu Manchu mustaches, Groucho Marx mustaches, Rollie Fingers mustaches, Salvador Dali mustaches and even a few Clark Gable mustaches. There were handlebars, horseshoes, pyramids, walruses and toothbrushes.

Robert Redford wore a mustache in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Paul Newman wore one in “The Sting.” That no doubt encouraged the sprouting of many a ’stache at the time.

Men also wanted to look like Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds, both of whom sported formidable mustaches at the time. Selleck, by the way, also foolishly shaved his upper lip for awhile but now has returned to the hirsute look for which he is famous.

But then, in the ’80s, mustaches started to fade away and eventually were seen only on eccentrics or the unfashionably obstinate few. It got to the point where every mustache was disparagingly referred to as a “porn-star mustache,” which is unfair to both porn stars and mustaches – not to mention the many men with mustaches whose experience before a camera was limited to home movies of family cookouts.

It might be argued that mustaches made a triumphant return with the boom in van dykes (which sometimes are mistakenly referred to as goatees, which actually are just the chin beard similar to the beard on a goat). Athletes started the trend in van dykes, also sometimes called circle beards, which then spread like a flu epidemic.

Every other guy now sports upper lip and chin whiskers of some kind. Often it is the “oh, I just forgot to shave there” look.

I assert, however, that this does not represent the return of the mustache. A mustache has to stand or droop on its own without the support of chin hair! And standalone mustaches remain rare.

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, wears a well manicured mustache. He’s the only one I can think of in Congress who does. And it has been more than a century since the presidency of William Howard Taft, who was the last White House incumbent with facial hair.

Very few Hollywood stars sport a mustache without accompanying chin whiskers unless it’s for a specific part. Or if they’re porn stars.

Perhaps the rarity of mustaches is a desirable thing for those who still wear them or are contemplating growing one. Anti-fashion has its own rewards.

An anti-fashion statement, like wearing black, calf-length socks with shorts and sandals, can be viewed as courageous in a way.

Whatever the prevailing fashion, I know I won’t cut mine off. I wouldn’t recognize myself in the mirror.

It isn’t so much a fashion as an old habit. And, besides, if I cut my mustache off, what would I use to strain my soup?

James Werrell is opinion page editor for The Herald.