Modern mustaches are confusing. Lip fuzz can be a marker of class, non-conformity, delinquency, aspiration, or hypersexuality. Different men grow mustaches for different reasons, but all these men share one thing in common: They made a choice. It is extremely rare that a man’s facial hair naturally grow into under-nose topiary if left alone to do its thing. As such, all mustaches can be understood as gestures of what researchers call “performative masculinity.” They mean something. What they mean depends largely on cultural or individual feelings about manhood and masculinity.
This is why, in 2018, mustaches are largely considered to be creepy. The pedophile and pornstar jokes emerge from a place of discomfort with overt celebrations of manhood. That might sound odd in an era of proliferating beards, but there’s plenty of historical precedents.
Although testosterone levels do not directly dictate facial hair, there’s evidence that people still believe that men with it are manlier than their clean-shaven counterparts. Scientists suspect that the goal in growing them is not to attract mates — studies seem to indicate female ambivalence — but to compete with other men for dominance. Research shows that mustaches are most common in societies where there are a surplus of men in the mating market (think: polygamous cultures). In other words, mustaches are shaped in part by sexual dynamics, but not best understood as a means of attracting a mate.
“Nothing can be simply a symbol of manliness because manliness is many things, both good and bad,” explains Christopher Oldstone-Moore, a professor of history at Wright State University and author of Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair. “Mustaches can be symbolic of assertive masculinity.”
To that point, American men with mustaches make on average 8.2 percent more money than men with beards, and 4.3 percent more than clean-shaven men, a survey of 6,000 men reveals. These men are inheritors of a rich and shockingly long tradition.
Archaeologists believe even cavemen shaped their facial hair into mustaches using shells and tweezers. But the mustache as it’s known today came into its own in England during the Elizabethan era. In a heavily bearded time, King James I and his son King Charles I set themselves apart as regal with their respective handlebars. After both mustaches were depicted in the art of the time, the masses parodied them in attempt to achieve the same distinguished look. When Britain moved away from Puritan rule, the mustache remained a symbol of status and a far more manly affectation. King Charles II, who ruled with a mustache in 1660 until 1685, is featured in portraits with one in his early teens. One can safely assume his portraitist was kissing ass.
Meanwhile, in Russia, Tsar Peter the Great attempted to eradicate beards by implementing “beard tax” in 1698 after realizing on a trip through Western Europe that they were more antiquated than masculine. The tax, which initially charged 60 to 100 rubles in exchange for a token permitting the beard, did not include mustaches, which helped to popularize them. With beards officially out, mustaches became the dominant way for men to grow dominance from their faces. The British army even went as far as to require mustaches as part of their uniforms from 1860 to 1916.
By the end of the 19th century, germs and bacteria were better understood and beards became seen as an unhygienic risk factor for spreading diseases like tuberculosis. New York City banned milkmen from wearing whiskers in 1902, and hospitals in Britain forced patients and workers to shave as well. By 1904 inventor King Camp Gillette was issued the patent for the first ever disposable razor, and cleanliness became increasingly important. When gas masks used in World War I (and later World War II) would not seal properly with beards, facial hair stopped a marker of men returning from war as well. Mustaches were still permitted in the military, but only among certain ranks. This meant that they were largely sported by high-ranking officers and delinquents. Let’s call it the mustache schism.
“Men who stuck with mustaches were either older men sticking to the old standard, a military look,” Oldstone-Moore says. “Or they were strong-willed individualists who didn’t need or care to follow the new rules of cooperative manliness.”
This partially explains the sexual elements of mustache messaging. They seem naughty because naughty men had mustaches. This remained true.
This full spectrum of mustaches can be tracked in popular culture throughout the latter half of the 1900s. Pornstars in the 1970s sported the more transgressive mustaches, whereas Tom Selleck brought the martial and rebellious camps together with his iconic Magnum P.I. mustache. Mustaches and beards have been utilized to depict villains, which was particularly useful in distinguishing evil twins from their more favorable family members. These whiskers are not just a visual tool, but a theme borrowed from Christianity. Allan Peterkin, author of the One Thousand Mustaches: A Cultural History of the Mo, told Patheos, that the mustache has always been used in religious literature as a symbol of evil. The popular image of Satan was modeled after the Pan, a Greek god associated with wildness and sexuality, who has goat-like features. This included a mustache as a part of a goatee that is present in most renditions of the devil today. That doesn’t help a mustached man’s cause, but oddly goats are just fine.
Current data shows such creepiness may be a matter of where you live, with mustaches being the more mainstreamed in Nevada, North Carolina, and the Pacific Northwest, where they outrank beards. To Oldstone-Moore, the creepiness really comes down to how the mustache looks itself. A bushy mustache is more old school, but a thin, long, and dark mustache is seen as more dangerous, and more likely to be associated with risk-taking or non-conformity.
No U.S. presidents have worn a mustache since William Howard Taft in the early 1900s, and the last major presidential candidate to sport one was Thomas E. Dewey, who ran in 1944 and 1948. Articles from that era and subsequent research suggest that Dewey’s mustache may have been why the Republican nominee lost both elections. Politicians learned from his losses and have tended to keep it clean ever since. They are aware, no doubt, that studies show that clean-shaven men are more likely to be seen as sensitive to women’s issues.
When the value of masculinity in a culture shift, so do to attitudes towards unmitigated displays of it. In that sense, it’s not that mustaches are necessarily “creepy,” but that male nonconformity or assertiveness is viewed with suspicion. The issue is that manliness is not valued in the same way as it was in generations prior, and showing it off to achieve dominance may not be as effective as a result. When performative masculinity no longer has an audience, mustaches are openly mocked.
Hair follicles on the upper lips of men never really became creepy, but mustaches are so much more than that. Ultimately showing off how manly you are by something by something contradictory and cosmetic, at best it’s going to be confusing. That will always have the potential to become creepy, depending on where you live, who you ask, and if you look like Burt Reynolds. More disorienting than distasteful, more than anything mustaches are merely the measure of a man wants men to see how manly he is. Whether or not that’s a good thing will continue to depend entirely on context.
“A mustache moves a man on the spectrum towards assertiveness,” says Oldstone-Moore, “which may be a good or bad thing depending on the individual and circumstances.”