Once the defining feature of a man: the bastion of manliness… the manliest marker of masculinity… the moustache’s moment may have sadly been clippered. It’s the latest in a long line of mens’ classics to be embraced by all manner of douchebags. Last time it was the bow tie (R.I.P 2011) – overly casualised and commodified in that Lynx-scented Urban Outfitters way (like those Joy Division t-shirts with rhinestones or faux distressing and scoop necklines; or all three at once… Unforgivable.) For moustaches, like bow ties, should never, ever be worn with a white plimsole. The moustache has become the cliché of our time. An extra in the Being A Dickhead’s Cool video. It wasn’t always this way…
The possibility of having your very own moustache began around 30000 BC when flint razors were first fashioned, however, it didn’t catch on, and the Cavemen Days were relatively tash-less. The same applied to the Egyptians during 3000 BC, where they were forced to shave off practically all their body hair, although some rulers wore artificial beards (including one queen. That wasn’t the first queen to be seen sporting radical facial hair but more on that in a moment). The oldest portrait showing a shaved man with a moustache is an ancient Iranian horseman from 300 BC. What a trailblazer. It was only during the 1800s that moustaches really became popular, particularly in Europe.
By the 1860s taches were really bang on trend, and demand saw the invention of the moustache cup; a mug with a sort of little shelf inside the rim for your facial hair to sit on and keep dry. John Lennon used a moustache cup and in James Joyce’s Ulysses Leopold Bloom drinks his tea using one. The moustache enjoyed a golden age at the end of the 19th Century before attitudes started to change and from 1910 men preferred a clean shaven look.
Which leads us to the disco dusted 1970s. A golden age of rugged handsomeness, when full moustaches sprouted back into fashion. It was a time when the moustache took on a subversive, coded power; embraced by a generation of gay men newly liberated (after the 1969 Stonewall Riots) wanting to create a new identity within society, and dissociate themselves from effeminacy. Moustaches became iconic of sociosexual behavioural patterns emerging among gay men (specifically American) who reclassified themselves and aspired to the appearance of working-class Americans (who were worshiped, and in some respects still are; as the ultimate ideal of masculinity.) Body hair was exhibited, haircuts cropped, and moustaches trimmed. Those unable to fathom an impressive strip of “Gay Velcro” (some naughty slang – think about it) obtained stick-ons. This idea of gay lib through rejecting the feminine is pretty reductive now but you can see how in the 1970s it was a strong statement.
David McDiarmid was a Sydney born fashion designer and queer political activist. One of the leading voices during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, working in graphics, fine art and performance exploring gay subcultures, political, sexual and cultural concerns of Gay Liberation, the utopian urban hedonism of the 1970s and 1980s and the post AIDS queer cultural politics of the 1990s. He originally performed an essay named ‘A Short History of Facial Hair’ in 1993 accompanied by 35mm colour slides, that followed his personal visual journey from hippy to clone, Gay Liberation activist to sexual revolutionary then from hustler to dance floor diva.
The work represented an emotional and important 20 year period with David using hair, facial hair and specifically his moustache to tell a story that symbolises the experience of a generation of gay men who experienced the horrors of AIDS first hand. ‘A Short History of Facial Hair’ has been adapted into a film by LCF MA Fashion Photography graduate Hermano Silva, retelling McDiarmid’s story in a colourful, light but profound work. The film formed part of an exhibition at the Fashion Space Gallery alongside a series of McDiarmid’s “Rainbow Aphorisms” – a suite of fierce and seductive digital art works created in 1994-5 (just before McDiarmid’s death) emblazoned with camp and politically charged slogans such as “It’s My Party And I’ll Die If I Want To.” The Word- Art style rainbow gradients and trashy typography are shockingly current today and could easily be confused for the hipster creations of a teenage blogger. I think this gives the phrases and slogans and quotes even greater gravity… they are still relevant and perhaps because of the hip irony of their aesthetic; their messages will be read and absorbed by a new audience. Over a cup of tea (no Moustache Cups necessary for us two) Leanne Wierzba, assistant curator for the show explains to me “Facial hair serves as a marker of McDiarmid’s life experiences, and is linked to his own mortality.” When he lost his virginity at 13, he maintained a mod haircut. He became addicted to drugs shortly afterwards. Then in 1962, he founded a drop in centre for gays and lesbians.
He caught gonorrhoea, amongst other infections, and grew a moustache, as well as a beard, to emphasise his identity as a homosexual man living in such a difficult period. When he developed syphilis, he cut off all his hair. It is a sad work but the film and exhibition are actually surprisingly uplifting and celebratory. I ask Leanne if she thinks men are as politically in tune with their facial hair today. “I think that you can see men of a lot of different social groups and demographics sporting it. It was interesting to note that most men who came to the Private View had some form of facial hair!” she laughs.
In our post-modern time people seem to have shaken off the particular gay and political connotations the tache held during McDiarmid’s era. Straight, gay, whatever, young boys are pairing their top lip warmers with chinos, plimsoles and armfuls of fresh tattoos. The moustache has been re- embraced by a new generation for its dated naffness (the reason for so many fashionable revivals: think polyester frocks, 1980s airbrush art t-shirts and our old friend, the mullet). I think blokes are thinking more Keith Lemon/ Rufus Hound when they’re stood in front of the mirror in the morning, willing their facial hair to grow faster. There’s also the ‘Movember’ effect – when guys grow their moustaches each November to raise awareness for Men’s health issues. Although that’s just a bit of charitable fun, like jumping in a bath of baked beans for Comic Relief it goes nicely with McDiarmid’s own story: using his facial hair as a queer symbol of defiance but also in the end to raise awareness for AIDS. Who’d have thought a bit of face fuzz could grow to mean so much?
Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion by Geraldine Biddle-Perry and Sarah Cheang
Stereotypes, Cognition and Culture by Perry R. Hinton
Gay Macho by Martin P. Levine
Fashion Space Gallery
London College of Fashion
20 John Princes Street
Monday–Friday: 10am–6pm Saturday: 10am–4pm