The Yin and Yang of Mustaches

It’s 2021, mustaches are back in style, and as always, people are divided.

“The world needs to face a cold hard truth: 99% of mustaches don’t look good,” writes Benjamin Davis. It’s a satirical piece, but in the article’s comments section, a woman named Kristen chimes in: “Mustaches don’t look good on anyone. Just ewww!” Another woman named Carol writes, “Thank you, thank you. I hate mustaches.” 95 people have applauded (the equivalent of a Reddit upvote) Carol’s comment.

Disdain for mustaches isn’t a new response or a lazy indictment of a style that has long been dormant from the public eye. It’s a story that has played out time and time again, even at the height of mustache popularity.

41 years ago, Freddie Mercury’s mustache made its first appearance. Now known as the chevron mustache, it’s become one of the most iconic ‘stache styles of all time.

But in 1980, Mercury’s new facial hair was met with firm resistance. In Queen: As It Began, Jacky Gunn and Jim Jenkins write that Mercury’s new look, particularly the mustache, caused "the grief of many of his female fans.” And Nicole Rosenthal points out in an article for Grunge that, “It goes without saying that the initial media and fan reaction was critical, with reports of fans bringing disposable razors to concerts and throwing them onstage in a desperate plea.”

Mercury cared little for the negative opinions on his ‘stache. If anything, he was amused by the dislike for it. In a concert recording from the early 80s, Mercury asks the crowd what they think, only to follow up the cheers and jeers with a simple statement: “I don’t give a fuck, actually. It’s my mustache, and I’m gonna keep it!”

Freddie Mercury wouldn’t be the last superstar to create a rift amongst fans over a lip-strip.

Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis began sporting a mustache in 2011, prompting one fan to create a Change.org petition to “Make Anthony shave his mustache.”

Justin Bieber’s mustache has received a similar response over the past several years. And like Freddie Mercury, Bieber seems to revel in the adverse reactions.

But where Mercury genuinely loved his chevron, Bieber seems to be more entertained by the idea of his mustache and less interested in the actual mustache itself. According to a Canadian radio station, “ ‘He [Bieber] feels that for years he’s been the pretty boy and loves how much everyone hates it and thinks it’s hilarious,” an insider dished. “He doesn’t even like it himself, but the more people hate it, the longer he wants to keep it.’ ”

In 2021, mustaches find themselves at a bit of a historic crossroads. On the one hand, they’re more popular than they’ve been in more than three decades, and on the other hand, even their most popular wearers can’t quite shake the idea that the mustache is the butt of the joke.

It’s what Matt Wolk, a history teacher in Wisconsin, calls a “yin and yang of machismo and mockery.” Matt has been dabbling in the mustache for the past decade. But he's been wearing a burly handlebar for the better part of the past five years. He resembles Charles Bronson or a 19th-century strongman.

Matt says his experience changed as his mustache filled in and became more prominent. “It took me some time to come to grips with how certain people looked at or treated me differently over the course and development of my mustache… like, a noticeable difference from coworkers to friends and family. Random guys stopping you to talk, all because you didn’t shave your lip. I was at a county fair, and one guy stopped me politely, and I smiled. He said, ‘You know what I’m going to say, don’t you?’ ”

But he also dealt with ridicule for the first two to three months of growing it. “Porn stache, creepy guy, all that stuff comes your way... Is it because pop culture has provided it as an easy lambast point for any and all?” Matt wonders. “It will make most want to trim the damn thing off.. or call in the artillery with a beard.”

Many men never allow themselves to take the mustache seriously because to do so would open themselves up to the taunting and criticism. As a culture, we certainly aren’t shy about voicing our dislike of people's style decisions—and that doesn’t apply to just one gender either. On social media, everyone is an open target.

Of course, there are those who are fervent supporters of mustaches.

In a 2006 piece written for New York Magazine, a writer named Sara Stewart was quoted saying, “On the right guy, a mustache is hotter than any other facial hair. It’s got a sort of supermasculine seventies thing about it. Think Tom Selleck, Richard Roundtree, John Holmes… To me, it suggests, ‘I am good enough in bed that I don’t give a fuck if you think my facial hair is ridiculous.’ ”

The inclusion of the words “on the right guy” is a common theme used by people who view mustaches favorably. It’s an asterisk on a generally positive assessment. It says, “I love mustaches, but... only in the right scenario.”

That giant BUT is what makes mustaches so alluring. The idea that it’s a hard look to “pull off” makes a great mustache more of a unicorn than any other type of facial hair. When a mustache really works, it makes a huge impact.

The IDGAF about your status quo attitude is also tied up in what makes or breaks a mustache. It’s Sam Elliott’s unwavering commitment to the ‘stache. It’s Freddie Mercury telling his fans that he doesn’t actually care what they think about his look or Dr. King’s unrelenting push for a better future. Or it's Eddie Murphy’s leather-suited-offend-anyone stand-up comedy of the early 80s. All had drastically different agendas, but the point is that men who have made the mustache iconic are not interested in what people think of them.

History also tells us that when social change is afoot, mustaches aren’t far behind. So, it makes sense that in the 21st century, Millennials would be the generation championing the mustache and moving it into a new frontier. After all, they are the generation that was touted as having such high aspirations to change the world.

Black and white photo of a millennial man with a prominent mustache

Millennials are viewed as being primarily responsible for bringing back the mustache—that’s the yin. The yang is that Millennials are also the most vocal in their contempt for mustaches. And it’s really no surprise that the generation that invented some of its most damaging monikers—the pornstache and the pedostache—would be resistant to its revival.

The terms pornstache and pedostache began appearing on the internet in the early 2000s and snowballed throughout the decade. They’re deeply embedded in our lexicon. People are more likely to know what a pornstache and pedostache are than a chevron or walrus mustache. Or worse, they’re more likely to view all mustaches as pornstaches and pedostaches.

It makes sense—Millennials grew up with a very limited frame of reference for the mustache.

In the 90s, the only mustaches were worn by men over 40, pro wrestlers, historical figures, sitcom cops, and Ron Jeremy. And, of course, no one would blame you if being exposed to Ron Jeremy at an early age was enough to permanently ruin mustaches for you.

On top of that, there’s the image of the socially inept or sexually deviant mustached man that permeated pop culture in the early 2000s. Think Kip and Uncle Rico in the 2004 movie Napoleon Dynamite. Even more so, think Ryan Gossling in the 2007 film Lars and the Real Girl, in which the blonde-mustached Gossling falls in love with a sex doll.

It all culminates in a straightforward statement—if you wear a mustache, you’re a creep, or “that mustache makes you look like someone’s Uncle… who is a creep.”

Suffice it to say, the deck was stacked against the mustache from day one for Millennials. It’s why the hipster mustaches that started appearing in the 2000s were so ironic—they had to be.

Carlos Costa posing outside with a dark mustache and wearing a leather jacket.

But perhaps it’s our never-ending quest to assign meaning to everything that is the crux of the mustache divide.

“Today’s mustache might be caught in circles of irony that bite and play with centuries of attempted manliness, but at the same time it’s escaping the bristling tyranny that inspired it for so long,” writes John Ortved in an Esquire article titled, The Mustache Is Thriving. But What Does It Mean?

What does it mean when a man grows a mustache? What message is he trying to convey? What point is he trying to make?

But more importantly, what happens when we don’t know what the mustache means?

The unknown makes us uncomfortable. We want to be able to look at someone and have a general idea of who they are and what they believe in. That’s something that might have been easier to do in the past.

In the 19th century, a mustache might have gotten you labeled as a soldier or an outlaw, but it might have also gotten you labeled as a dandy, a dude, or a fop. In the 1950s, a large mustache might have insinuated that you were a Marxist, while a thinner mustache could lead people to think you were Hollywood royalty. In the 60s, a mustache may have meant you were anti-war, and in the 70s, it might have implied that you were a sexual deviant.

But it also may just be revisionist history to assign meaning to mustaches of the past. Because to the wearer, the mustache never means just one thing.

“I am a Dad, husband, son, teacher, and a lot of other things. That said, when people see me, they often see a mustache first. It tends to be the wearers calling card… I think it will always be a symbol of strength, but strength comes in so many packages and angles in which to view,” says Matt Wolk.

Mustaches are and have always been as complex and nuanced as those who wear them. That’s why mustaches can be “Dad” and can also be, “ohhh, Daddy.” They can be creepy, and they can be captivating. And ultimately, people are entitled to be repulsed by them and equally entitled to love them.

It’s only years down the road that we’ll look back and say, “ah yes, those mustaches of the 2020s meant blah blah blah.”

So, in the meantime, If you want to grow a mustache, go ahead and grow that mo’. But then again, if you’re seeking approval for your mustache, you might just be missing the point.

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