‘You look like an Agatha Christie villain!’ The moustache is back – but should it go away again?

After years of beards, beards and more beards, the moustache is having a moment. But do you have to be Mark Owen or Henry Cavill to carry one off? I put it to the test

When I came of age, moustaches were the height of uncool. They were pervy, old-fashioned and creepy. The masculine ideal was clean-shaven, unless you were Des Lynam. A bizarre thing happened 20 years later, when ridiculous moustaches and moustache iconography came into fashion, and people even had them tattooed on their fingers. That went away, and we said no more about it. But I have started seeing them again, like civil war ghosts. From Heist food market at St Leonards-on-Sea to All Points East festival in Victoria Park in London, young men with moustaches, everywhere. What’s going on?

If you are old like me – someone who believes the 1990s and 2010 were both 10 years ago – you won’t like the answer. Fashion’s classic 20-year trend cycle is no longer fit for purpose. On TikTok, anything older than five years is treated as vintage, and eligible for revival. Thus moustaches join indie sleaze, wired headphones and Polaroids, Tumblr girls and twee as part of a cursed repackaging of 2014’s hipster style. It’s nostalgia for nostalgia, hipster squared. God help us.

From left: Eugene Hutz, Mark Owen, James Franco
From left: Eugene Hutz, Mark Owen, James Franco. Composite: Lauren Withrow/The Guardian; Getty

“Moustaches draw the eye to the centre of the face,” says Chris Foster, creative director of the Refinery hair salon in Mayfair, where I have come to have my stubble shaped into a Rhett Butler. “For men with chubby faces, they’re more flattering than a beard.” Beards were the clear winner of the 2010s, making the leap from uncoolness to near-ubiquity. But it’s impossible to bring hipster beards back, because everyone still has them. This leaves the field open for moustaches, their more rococo cousin. (The rise of the mullet is another way this plays out, and tragically the two are not mutually exclusive.)

Wearing mine in the streets feels like walking around with an edgy new friend: one I’m not sure my other friends will like, one liable to make a dirty joke in polite conversation. Early reactions to my new look range from “I can’t take you seriously” to “You look like an Agatha Christie villain”. They could be reflecting my own awkwardness. “I can’t remember what you looked like before, honestly,” yawns my friend Suzie. As compliments go, thin beer; but at a book launch, Grayson Perry tells me the moustache looks good, and he has won a Turner prize.

Clark Gable as Rhett Butler with Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.
Clark Gable as Rhett Butler with Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Photograph: Masheter Movie Archive/Alamy

Hipsters merely plundered the history books. Moustaches have always been popular, conveying dignity and virility. Classically, military men had them (army rules still forbid soldiers from having beards, because they prevent an effective seal in oxygen masks). There have also been Zappa-tached hippies and bohemian twizzlers such as Salvador Dalí. Nietzsche, Einstein and US civil war general Ambrose Burnside remain instantly recognisable from theirs. Hitler ruined the toothbrush moustache, though Robert Mugabe and Michael Jordan tried to bring it back in the last quarter of the 20th century.

On the flip side they do have a build-a-disguise, Groucho-Marxist ludicrous aspect. I once stayed in a room entirely decorated with comedy moustaches, from wallpaper to pillowcase. Anything that can drastically change one’s appearance is funny. They have also served as symbols of untrustworthy self-regard, or fastidiousness. Unlike the ruggedness of a beard, moustaches require shaving and neatening, even waxing and spiralling. (Church of England rules forbid clergymen from having moustaches, for reasons of vanity.)

“A moustache is kinda intriguing … it’s cool,” says Luke Jefferson Day, associate style editor at GQ, as he weighs these associations. For him, they recall the enigmatic, handsome, flirtatious leading men of his adolescence in Australia. Actors such as Tom Selleck and Burt Reynolds were modern matinee idols, Clark Gables of their day. Sexuality is still the moustache’s top note, he says, which explains their ambiguous cachet. “It’s the sleazy appeal of the Lothario.” He namechecks the smoothly treacherous Star Wars character Lando Calrissian, pointing to their underworld glamour. “You often look like a 70s porn star, or a coke dealer.”

From left: Jimmy Q, street style at London fashion week, Henry Cavill
From left: Jimmy Q, street style at London fashion week, Henry Cavill. Composite: Getty

Is that why there is no current Hollywood heart-throb who is moustache-forward? Jonathan Rhys Meyers flirts with a pencil, James Franco has an on-off dalliance with a wild west sheriff. Henry Cavill is closest, but his moustache fell to comedy when it was ineptly painted out in CGI reshoots of Justice League. The men who fly the flag are Nick Offerman and Sam Elliott, whose walrus brush in films such as The Big Lebowski seems impervious to fashion, older than time. Their lips bristle with the secret of a bygone masculinity, more confident in itself.

No one tries to buy coke off me but it’s hardly Zen and the art of moustache maintenance. I keep accidentally shaving chunks out of mine, then having to do the same to the other side. It’s like tidying up a cake I have already taken a bite from. The sensation of hair at the edge of my mouth makes me think I’ve got crumbs there. I compulsively dab at the corners, a distressing new tic. How does anyone tolerate these lip ticklers?

“I think they’re sexy, a sort of Tom of Finland thing,” demurs Sammy, a trendy type I accost as he is taking his bins out. He grew his during the hot summer, as a lighter way to wear a beard. “I feel childish without it,” he adds, referring to his baby face. Later, I meet Duncan Smith, who wears a camo jacket and works in the record industry. He grew his after seeing a guy who looked like him but more so, a 70s moustache completing the look. He doesn’t see them as dated, or it doesn’t make them undesirable. “I saw a photo of my dad where he looked exactly like me. My mother’s father had one and it looked suave.” Would his girlfriend mind if he shaved it off? She shrugs. “I’d be fine, but he’d be sad.”

Fathers loom large in moustache chat. Talking about his own ‘tache recently, the singer Mark Owen admitted how much he envied his dad’s “strong, weighty” number – “the best moustache I ever knew”.

Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Over the next few weeks, I stop caveating my hairy strip with bleats about doing it for work. It doesn’t look ridiculous, someone admits. Kinda suits you, says another. It looks cute, an American middle school teacher tells me. It feels as if I could be on a journey, that this is a ’tache with a narrative trajectory.

Of course, most talk of trends can be subtitled: “What are white people doing?” The Refinery’s clients are largely Middle Eastern men who wear head coverings, for whom moustaches have long been a means of expression. “Saudis will have a completely different beard and moustache design to someone from Kuwait,” Foster notes. Black clients, he says, prefer clean, stylised moustaches and goatees. The longer, circus strongman styles I have been noticing are the preserve of Caucasian men, who use them to showcase eccentric individuality.

Moustaches have long been central to gay culture, which was also the breeding ground for New Beards. “That was a move away from the hairless, shiny gay thing,” notes Day, of a trend that moved through New York hipsters, then east Londoners, to the mainstream. Gay men are often “early adopters”, he notes, emboldened and free. “There’s more room in our community. In the straight world, you stay in your lane.” Other stylists echo this: straight men fear drastically changing their look, arriving at work with anything that could open them to ridicule. Yet that’s loosening a little.

With more people working from home or in staggered shifts, there is less chance of becoming watercooler gossip. Most men experimented with hair over lockdown, growing it out or shaving it off. The dilution of banter and the ever-turning fashion wheel make conditions ripe for a little hetero-flamboyance. I must admit that after a rough start, the response to my moustache has been positive, despite my wearing it with no confidence whatsoever. If I’d had the stones to back myself, I’d probably have a record deal or be on a magazine cover.


Rhik Samadder

The GuardianTramp

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