Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large

Paying the lip service

Feature John Mather grew a moustache for a dare and, in doing so, opened a door to a fascinating world of cultural differences: what type of tache should he grow, what would suit him and would it just be a case of hair today, gone tomorrow?

John Mather grew a moustache for a dare and, in doing so, opened a door to a fascinating world of cultural differences: what type of tache should he grow, what would suit him and would it just be a case of hair today, gone tomorrow? The first piece of facial hair I could grow was a moustache - though I wouldn't dare do it. As a teenager, whenever I spotted whiskers sprouting on the sides of my lip, I shaved them quickly - dry, with one of my dad's used razors. The "dirty teen stache", as my group of friends back in Canada dubbed it, was strictly forbidden by social code. For reasons I did not understand, upper-lip growth spoke of all things sleazy for men under 40. I waited until I could sprout sideburns at 15 as my first facial hair experiment.

This prejudice continued into my young adult years. Sometimes, I would shave a week's worth of stubble back to a moustache, laughing at myself in the mirror for a few minutes before finishing off the upper lip. Moustaches were entwined in my culture with police officers, professors, porn stars and other caricatures I did not want to be. Where I'm from, young men don't have moustaches. But when I moved to Abu Dhabi, my facial hair world view was challenged. Moustaches were ubiquitous on Arab, Pakistani and Indian men alike. For them, it seemed, the tache was a point of pride and a harbinger of manliness. I began to wonder, then, how a simple strip of hair could be so revered in the East and so despised in the West? Why was it taboo for me to have one back home, but a rite of passage into manhood here?

I decided to bridge the moustache culture gap when a colleague dared me to grow one. It sounded like fun, and I agreed to a moustache for a month. After a few days with a thin, scraggly growth, I realised what had started as a prank was turning into a fascinating social experiment. The moustache grew its own personality - two, in fact. It was Jekyll and Hyde: a simultaneous indicator of manliness and creepiness, harking back to history's great leaders and scumbags. I was treated differently with a moustache, for reasons I became determined to uncover. People stared at me in malls, and strangers gazed at my upper lip as I talked. It was clear the moustache had made the man, but what remained to be seen was whether, in one month, the man could make the moustache.

The moustache's history can be told through the figures who have defined its various styles. These men - their taches conjured with a single name - further highlight the moustache's duality. They are split between heroes - Gandhi, Einstein, Dali, Hendrix - and villains - Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Genghis. I spent my first few days being compared with both the good and evil. I reminded people of celebrities such as Tom Selleck, George Michael and Ron Jeremy.

While the earliest evidence of moustaches is found on ancient Egyptians from 2650BC, it is likely that Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, was the first historical figure with a memorable tache. Next came Charlemagne, who pioneered the moustache into the Middle Ages. The French embraced moustaches, whereupon their sworn enemies, the English, passed a law in 1447 forcing men to shave their upper lips. Throughout history, England has largely spurned the tache (King Charles II being one notable royal exception), though it became popular in the 19th century - despite Queen Victoria's well-known aversion to all facial hair.

In America, spectacular facial hair was in vogue during the Civil War, specifically the walrus and the handlebar styles. In fact, as Allan Peterkin writes in his book One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History Of Facial Hair, by the time of the First World War, "the military moustache was well-established and pampered like an orchid. Certain British regiments insisted on its growth and this period saw the toothbrush and handlebars become standard issue."

Today the toothbrush moustache is better known as the Hitler moustache, and it died with him. The Nazi dictator single-handedly ruined what started as a popular working-class look - a reaction to Kaiser Wilhelm's over-coiffed, pointy moustache. With western leaders, facial hair has not been in favour for some time: William Taft, who served as US president from 1909 to 1913, was the last American president to sport it. But in the 1970s, America experienced the moustache revolution: luscious lip growth was so popular during that decade that the moustache never recovered from the backlash. Only certain groups of men have since been able to sell the look. As Peterkin spells out in his book, they include: "Greeks, Turks, Indians, Pakistanis, Bulgarians, African Americans, athletes, Southern California rockers and men with cleft palates."

Certain "manly" professions also cater to the tache: firemen, police officers and soldiers. The most interesting explanation I could find for this came from a Texas lawyer named Mac Fulfer, who specialises in face reading. In 2005 he explained to the Herald News in New Jersey that humans identify lips with genders: the upper is feminine and the lower is masculine. So, he reasoned, when someone covers his upper lip with hair, he is removing any femininity. "Moustaches are defences to when you're feeling threatened, when you need to bolster your identity," Fulfer said. "The statement is, 'I'm no wuss'."

Incidentally, one theory as to why moustaches boomed in the 1970s is that it was a response to feminism: growing a tache was one thing women could not do. True or not, the moustache all but disappeared in the 1980s, and the era of the clean-cut, corporate man came to pass. "We have all been successfully convinced that a smooth face is a masculine one," Peterkin writes. He also notes that modern anti-moustache prejudice extends to all kinds of facial hair in business. Many corporate recruiters suggest men shave completely for job interviews, as facial hair rates poorly in studies. In terms of public perception, Peterkin refers to a 2001 Men's Health survey, which asked women what they prefer: "The clean shave was preferred hands down by 97 per cent of young women. Stubble and sideburns rated only a 26 per cent full approval rating. The goatee came in at 20 per cent, the full beard at 17 per cent, the moustache and mutton chops at nine per cent, and the soul patch at six per cent. The Amish beard was favoured by a lowly three per cent."

The modern history of the western moustache, it seems, has stalled, forever stigmatised, stereotyped and typecast, unless worn ironically or by experiment. In the East, it's an entirely different story. On a recent trip to Rajasthan in India, the old palaces I visited were lined with portraits of Maharajas sporting long moustaches, often curled up at the end. Today, many Rajput men still twirl the ends of their moustaches up as a point of pride.

Beard grooming is clearly a priority among Arab men, too. James Piecowye, a radio host on Dubai Eye and professor of communication and media sciences at Zayed University, grew a moustache last November: he says it helped him fit in with his Arab colleagues. "Facial hair is a good thing here," he says. "I think it's one of the few places in the world where you can go half-shaven and no one bats an eye."

Granted, in Islam men are encouraged to let beards and facial hair grow. But the moustache's significance here appears more cultural than religious. Its use in symbolism gathered international attention in a famous incident in 2003. During a discussion about the invasion of Iraq at a meeting of Islamic nations in Qatar, an enraged aide to Saddam Hussein shouted at the Kuwaiti foreign minister, whom he accused of supporting the invasion: "Shut up you little man, you traitor, you monkey! Curse be upon your moustache."

This was meant as an affront to the man's honour. In Arabic, I'm told, swearing by one's moustache is as serious as swearing by one's mother. When I asked M's cultural advice columnist, Ali Alsaloom, what the significance of the moustache is, he told me: "In our traditions, it's a bit of a shame not to have a moustache." Another Emirati friend, Nadir, asked, "What happened?", when he first saw me clean-shaven. I asked him if he preferred me with the moustache. "Yes, it was good," he said. "Here, if you don't have anything on your face, it's not good. No."

in India, the popularity of the moustache is unquestioned. Richard McCallum noticed the varying forms of moustaches when he moved to Delhi in 2001 and collaborated with photographer Chris Stowers on a book, Hair India: A Guide To The Bizarre Beards And Magnificent Moustaches Of Hindustan, which was published last year. McCallum and Stowers travelled the country documenting facial hair: they found the most striking one in Rajasthan, on Ram Singh of Jaipur. "He's been growing it for over 20 years and has made it into the Guinness World Records for being the world's longest. He massages it daily with coconut oil ? It's played a cameo role in Octopussy and even appeared on the front cover of a Lonely Planet travel guide."

McCallum found that Indian men grow moustaches for a variety of purposes. "Some for religious reasons - Sikhs and Muslims for example. For others - such as Sadhus - not shaving is part of abandonment of worldly life. For some I think it's conformity with an Indian social stereotype. Especially in rural parts - it's a symbol of masculinity; virility and pride." However, particularly in larger, more westernised cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, as family units get smaller and women take on more important roles, the patriarchal moustache recedes. "When I walk around Delhi I find most young people don't have any facial hair," McCallum observes. "They emulate their cricketers and movie stars, few of whom now wear moustaches."

There are some stars, such as the actor Anil Kapoor, who still sport the moustache. And Kapoor is one person who made me think I could pull a moustache off: I even used a photo of him as my desktop image for inspiration. In many ways, the Bollywood star was my introduction to how cool the moustache could be. In North America, there are signs that the moustache is rallying, even if somewhat ironically: indie bands, such as Britain's Moustache Of Insanity, and celebrities Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom have made some powerful lip statements. Pitt said he thought he'd single-handedly bring it back, and while he pulled it off better than most, the only one who came close to making the tache an institution was Josh Brolin who, in No Country For Old Men, sported what I consider the greatest moustache of the past 20 years (Kapoor's is a close second).

In fact, a month before the film won an Oscar for Best Picture in February 2008, Esquire declared that "the serious moustache is back". But now, more than a year later, it seems the moustache is still a novelty at best, and an item of ridicule at worst. This is highlighted by the biennial media gawking at the World Beard and Moustache Championship, which took place in May in Anchorage, Alaska. It features mainly Germans and Americans boasting outrageous facial hair in outrageous shapes. This year's winner in the freestyle moustache category, Keith Haubrich, sported a thick, black tache, which at one end curled into a shower-curtain-ring-sized circle and at the other split off into five spikes.

And then there is the Movember - a portmanteau of the moustache slang "Mo" and November - an annual charity drive that started in a pub in Australia in 2003, when Luke Slattery was in a pub with a couple of friends lamenting the moustache's downfall. "We grew up with our fathers having moustaches and so did all the sportsmen we admired," Slattery says. They wondered what happened and whether they could bring it back.

They settled on two things: 1) they would grow a moustache for a month, and 2) they would try to raise money for prostate cancer doing it. Slattery, hoping to look like Burt Reynolds, grew his first moustache and it looked terrible."I'd have to go to meetings and my opening comment would be, 'Excuse the moustache, but I am growing it for charity.' " However, the moustache became a talking point, and Movember has since gone global. In 2008, 172,739 men grew moustaches around the world, raising US$23.1 million (Dh84.8 million). Today, Slattery has a moustache all the time, though he shaves clean at the beginning of November in accordance with Movember's rules. The charity is now his full-time job. "We never imagined Movember would be as big as it is today," he says. "We've tapped into something that has made it easy for men to show their care and their passion for men's health."

In the UAE, 86 Movember participants raised US$12,000 (Dh44,000) in 2007. This grew to 126 moustaches and US$19,000 (Dh69, 800) in 2008. Nicole Betts, who helped organise it, says there will be another event this year. Professor Piecowye, who grew his moustache last year for Movember, raising Cdn$2,500 (Dh7,920), says he hopes more local men get involved. He found most were reluctant to shave off their moustache at the beginning of the month (which is a requirement). "You almost have to have a reverse Movember in the Middle East. So the western guys grow a moustache and Arab guys shave it off."

No one paid me to grow a moustache, but doing so transformed me - for the most part against my will. Like a Rorschach inkblot test, I became what people saw in moustaches. And no matter what that was, everyone looked surprised at first. "What have you done?" and "what is that?" were common reactions. The look had a polarising effect: some were drawn to this act of aesthetic defiance, others said they didn't want to talk with me. For everyone, though, it was a matter of conversation.

After awhile, it was a source of amusement: people wanted to touch it. As I walked through the office, colleagues would look at me and rub their upper lips. Some men offered to grow one in solidarity; others said they didn't have the courage. Some women told me I looked better with it ("vaguely criminal", one said, but in a good sense), while others simply said it was ugly. When I shaved off the moustache, I felt like less of an individual. Despite its many poor reviews - "that is the ugliest thing I've ever seen," one person said - it gave me more personality. Did it make me feel more like a man? Not really. Did anyone copy it, making me a trendsetter? Again, no. Perhaps, then, the greatest achievement was personal. For the first two weeks, I felt awkward in public. I feared what people thought of me. Walking in the mall, I felt like wearing a T-shirt that said, "this is for an article". I wasn't confident. Slowly, though, I turned it into a source of confidence. With it, I was a man who didn't care what people thought of me, and I seriously thought about keeping it.

The day I shaved off my moustache, I visited my local barber. Having had a beard since I moved to Abu Dhabi, one benefit of facial hair is going for a single-blade shave. My first experience was at Marina Mall, where I heard other gentrified mustachios had theirs shaved. Mahmoud, the barber, was nice enough, but completely disinterested in discussing my moustache. Next, I visited The Lounge, which boasts executive grooming. The manager, Anas Zaher Aldeen, looked confounded when I told him that moustaches are taboo in the West. "Really? What's wrong with it?" he asked, adding, "Don't worry about that. Just try it."

Mohamed, the stylist who shaved me, was less encouraging. As he motion to trim my moustache, I waved him off. "What do you think?" I asked. "It's OK," he said hesitantly. "You just look like an old man. How old are you?" I told him 24. His eyes widened. "Oh. It's OK, whatever you want." For my final shave, I went to Shams, my local Keralite barber who usually just cuts my hair. Shams and I chatted while he meticulously trimmed my moustache. Of all the barbers, he was the most diligent, planning each snip - even reaching in to hack a few errant nose hairs. I decided I couldn't ask him to shave it off after all that work. So instead I asked if he liked the moustache. He said yes. I told him where I was from it was considered ugly.

"Men are clean-shaven in Canada?" he asked. "Yes, very clean-shaven," I said. "But many men in India have moustaches." Shams burst into laughter. "Yes, you noticed?" He finished trimming and I decided to keep his handiwork for a couple of hours - I couldn't believe I'd reached a point where the moustache had grown long enough to require a trim. That night, I stood in my bathroom, electronic clipper in hand and looked at myself with a moustache for the last time. Then I cut it all off. Somehow, I felt that I had let Shams, and the UAE, down..

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National