Before we proceed too far down the road of what a mustache means – this being Movember, the month in which men grow mustaches to alert the world to prostate cancer – perhaps a few words about the prostate gland are in order.
The prostate is a Yoda-shaped gland nestled in the neighbourhood between the bladder and the rectum. The prostate's main function in life is to lend a hand to spermatozoa produced by the male, in the form of an alkaline swimming solution.
The prostatorial solution – a delightful title for a detective novel! – offsets the natural acidity of the vaginal area, which means the laddies can live longer and swim harder toward their goal of reproduction. (Did you know that the hallowed female area is naturally acidic? I did not. I was astounded.)
The point is, the prostate promotes propagation. Sadly, as the male ages, the prostate ages, too. One in six Canadian men are diagnosed with prostate cancer. Four thousand die of it every year.
It was the Australians who first dreamed up a connection between the prostate and the upper lip, back in 2003. The tradition of growing a “mo” (Australian slang for mustache) in November to raise awareness of prostate cancer has been expanding globally ever since.
Canadians have raised more than $13-million so far this year, more than any other country.
Movember turns out to be a trenchant campaign. Now, every time you see some guy's mustached face, you think of his bum. That, in a walnut-sized shell, is the sad joke of human vanity. Not to mention a comment on the state of contemporary masculinity.
The grand old school of shaving
A mustache is one of the few physical rebellions permissible in a middle-class man's life. Canadian Club and Mercedes-Benz like to advertise to these guys. There's an iPhone app that lets you chart the progress of the growth of your mo in stop-mo-tion photography.
Needless to say, there is also an American Mustache Institute. Of course, there is. The AMI's semi-serious stance is that a mustache is manly and independent and smart, essentially a bow tie for the face.
Gandhi, Nietzsche, Einstein, General Sherman, Martin Luther King, Ron Jeremy and countless other heroes have sported lip sweaters, cookie dusters and nose foliage. (The thing has as many sobriquets as it does styles.)
With apologies to Gertrude Stein and Frida Kahlo, it's still mainly a guy thing, the first part of a young man's beard to come to life. It's his introduction to what humorist Robert Burdette, in a funny though long 1877 essay called “The Rise and Fall of the Mustache,” referred to as “the grand old school of shaving; the very school at which men will study and learn each for himself. One man's experience never does another man any good.”
A man quickly realizes what a harrowing pain it is to shave around one's nose and, before long, concludes that his upper lip was “designed by nature for a mustache pasture.” So a mustache becomes a sign of maturity, a breakwater that interrupts the flow between the eyes and the mouth, a veil that makes a declaration: The wearer does not say all that he sees.
The proto-feminist 1970s were its most recent glory years – not just the province of cops and the Village People, but seen on Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, dependable Tom Selleck, Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Wilford Brimley, Walter Cronkite, Mark Spitz (who claimed his mustache created an air pocket in the pool), baseball's Keith Hernandez (voted best sports mustache of all time by the AMI), Reggie Jackson, Ted Turner, G. Gordon Liddy and countless other extroverts.
What a mustache is not is a beard, which the AMI disdains as a “spousal compromise.”
Macho, macho men
We know from ancient paintings that the Scythians – living in what is now Iran – wore wide, smile-like mustaches as long ago as 300 BC.
But the Romans despised the stand-alone 'stache and long hair in general (Roman boys sometimes made an offering of their first facial hair to the emperor, as a gesture of fealty) and considered them barbaric, the sort of thing only an eighth-century Merovingian would sport up in Gaul, as a symbol of their Germanness and independence.
Then Charlemagne becomes emperor, and he has a problem: He's German, not Roman, but also Christian, hence not Merovingian. His solution? A mustache: He is the establishment, but his own man too.
The connection between mustaches and power pretty much begins there.
By the late 1800s, European aristocrats preferred the Kaiser-model mustache, a large upturned job that in its more elaborate form connects the mustache and the sideburns and resembles a clover-leaf highway exit ramp in the middle of one's face.
Visiting Americans found it too fussy and took to the toothbrush mustache instead, which caught on with the German working class, which eventually produced Adolf Hitler (who wore a Little Imperial, until he realized he couldn't get it into his gas mask).
Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, Robert Mugabe – the mustache was never the same again, politically. Thomas Dewey campaigned for president in 1944 and 1948, wore a mustache and lost both times.
Now, the mouthbrow is having a revival, as are barber shops, short hair, side parts, three-piece tailored suits, bow ties and leather briefcases. What does that say?
Breast-cancer activists have criticized the Movember campaign for making light of cancer, but I suspect that the contemporary desire to wear a mustache touches a much deeper yearning.
The thing about a mustache, you see, is that however modern it looks – the pencil-thin lip liner is very hot at the moment – it is always about the past, about a former, firmer, more secure, more declaratively masculine time when a man could be a man without having to explain himself – even if it's only as far back as when his prostate and the economy both worked.
In an age when women and technology (and cancer too) seem to be ascendant, when quiet individualism has given way to mass culture and the swarming collectivity of life on the Web, a mustache says, Look at my mouth. It's where my voice lives.
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.