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What Your Mustache Says About You

About six months ago, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, was shaving his beard when he reached the region between his nose and his upper lip and thought, What if I just stopped?

“I was self-conscious, at first, because I hadn’t ever worn just a mustache,” he said. But after confirming that his wife didn’t hate it, and realizing how commonplace they had become in his Echo Park neighborhood, he quickly embraced the look. “I turned 40 this year, and I have two young kids, and it makes me feel more like a dad, but a fun dad,” he said.

He is scarcely alone. The mustache, capable of evoking everything from rugged masculinity to whimsical irony to earnest fatherly cheer, is enjoying one of its periodic renaissances.

“I’ll be on the subway sometime, and I’ll look around and five other people in a 10-foot radius will have mustaches,” said Jimmy Brewer, 27, an actor in New York, who grew out his mustache while on vacation seven months ago. He then landed a part in the ensemble of the Broadway musical “Shucked” and was asked to keep it through the end of his contract. “I’ve always admired them on other people because it looks like people that wear them are more confident in themselves,” he said.

Though it’s hard to separate data about mustaches from data about facial hair trends more generally, those in the industry say that the rise is pronounced and recent. Once the domain of the creeper, porn star, countercultural icon or out-of-fashion uncle, the mustache is becoming just another option for facial hair.

There are many reasons. The mustache is masculine but playful in a world enjoying new ways of engaging with gendered styles. It was poised for a comeback after a decade of everyone having beards anyway, and quarantine allowed scads of people to give it a try and realize they liked it.

“It started to gain a lot more momentum in the last year, especially since ‘Top Gun’ came out,” said Matty Conrad, who runs several barbershops in Vancouver as well as a popular YouTube channel dedicated to facial hair grooming. “I think the mustache today is where beards were in 2010. But if it ends up having that staying power, then the people who turned to it for the wow factor will begin to look elsewhere.”

Nicky Austin, the hair and makeup stylist responsible for maintaining the iconic Ted Lasso ’stache, attributes the rise in mustaches among her clients in Los Angeles to the pervasiveness of beard culture, as well as a new openness to grooming.

“I know men who see their barber every weekend to keep their fades looking fresh, which would have been unheard-of 20 years ago,” she said, adding that those experiencing male-pattern baldness often find mustaches a style game-changer.

The attention is also part of the fun. Christian Illuzzi, an artist in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens, has been shocked by the attention his mustache receives. He has worn a beard since he was a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the 2010s, and only adopted his full mustache in the past few weeks.

“I’ve gotten compliments before, but never as much as on my mustache,” Mr. Illuzzi, said, echoing the experiences of others. “Guys on the street will say, ‘Hey, awesome mustache.’”

Mustaches became more common in queer spaces around the end of the 2010s, especially thin ones that complemented the manicured, Tom of Finland leather-and-harnesses sexual aesthetic that reigned. And they could have stayed on the edge of mainstream popularity if the pandemic had not hit. During that time, men began to transition from beards to stand-alone mustaches, bringing others along with them.

“Quarantine definitely liberated me from having to deal with that awkward middle phase, which always kept me from growing one,” said Lucas Johnson, an English teacher in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, who grew out his thick, wide, chevron-style mustache two years ago. “As someone in my late 20s, it’s been this nice way of feeling fashionable while still feeling like I’m ascending into more mature adulthood.”

He also appreciates its versatile associations. “The mustache connotes authority, but also suggests a certain amount of silliness,” he said. “It’s very masculine, but it’s also very flamboyant and quietly sort of queer-coded. The entire gender spectrum is obsessed with my mustache, as am I.”

The mustache’s popularity has always been particularly susceptible to cultural icons and trends of the moment. In the early 1900s, mustaches were often elaborate, like the bushy walrus style of Theodore Roosevelt or the waxed ends of the English mustache (think Archduke Franz Ferdinand), ironically if briefly revived in the early aughts by suspender-wearing hipsters across America.

Until 1916, British soldiers were actually forbidden from shaving their upper lip, perhaps because of the mustache’s deep associations with virility and strength.

More contrived styles were also an easy target for mockery. Charlie Chaplin’s toothbrush mustache, that small patch above his lip, was adopted specifically for its humorous appeal‌, ‌before becoming associated with Adolf Hitler and forever losing its place in the fashion cycle.

After the cleanshaven 1950s, the mustache became the countercultural facial hair of choice for myriad groups considered subversive — longhaired hippies, Marxists, gay men. Freddie Mercury wore what remains one of the most iconic mustaches of the century.

As the sharp style division between mainstream and counterculture began to blur in the 1970s and ’80s, the mustache came to be associated with a masculine swagger and was found on the faces of Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott and others. Not everyone could pull it off, which was always part of its appeal, but these hypermasculine associations lent themselves to exaggeration, and the mustache was playfully adopted in queer culture. It also became widespread throughout the porn industry, giving it the whiff of degeneracy.

Of course, in many places, such as the Middle East and Mexico, the mustache absorbed its own rich set of associations, and these were often brought to the United States, giving the style different meanings for different groups. For Black Americans, as well, its evocation of authority and assiduousness made the mustache particularly popular among leaders during the Civil Rights era, including Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr., before it lost favor in the ’70s. (As Wesley Morris detailed in a 2020 essay in The New York Times, it remains a vivid way of engaging with Black identity.)

By the end of the 1990s, the mustache had fallen so deeply out of fashion that few thought it would ever return. But as a critical mass of mustache wearers has gathered, the style has slowly become free of the subculture associations it garnered in the 1980s, leading more people to imagine it on their own face.

Today, two options have proven particularly popular: a chevron (like that worn by Ron Swanson in “Parks and Recreation”) and the prominent mustache embedded in a face of stubble, known as a beardstache (Think Henry Cavil, the Weeknd or any Ph.D. student in Brooklyn) More carefully groomed choices, including the pencil mustache, the parted mustache or the mustache with waxed ends, remain the domain of the uniquely capable among us.

But any style choice that significantly changes one’s face is going to feel a little comical, a little ironic and playful. And in a world revisiting the very core of what masculinity means, those associations can be welcomed, too.

“I think a lot of people are grappling with questions of, How do I embody my masculine side in a way that feels good and doesn’t feel performative,” said Mr. Johnson, the English teacher in Brooklyn. A mustache, he said, “feels like a fun way to indulge that without compromising being sensitive, being flamboyant and being stylish.”

The stand-alone mustache, which requires at least a minimum degree of grooming, also suggests the wearer is someone who takes pride in his style. Ari Goldstein, a student at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School who initially grew out his full, dark mustache as a joke in college, enjoys the intentionality of the mustache.

“It makes me seem more approachable and friendly,” he said. “It’s also a way of looking a little unique without needing to pick an outfit.”

Like others, Mr. Goldstein appreciates that his mustache is a conversation starter, though he tries not to get too wrapped up in what others think about it. “I think people map their own meaning onto your mustache,” he said. “My mustache means something to me, but people are probably associating it with other mustaches they have feelings toward, so I think the range of reactions I get, which is pretty broad, reflects the broad role of mustaches in society.”

As the mustache becomes more popular, many men are realizing that they know very little about its upkeep. What style works for their face? How should it be trimmed? How long does it take to grow out?

“Just because the guy wants something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily suitable to his face shape or his hair texture or his growth type,” said Mr. Conrad, the barber in Vancouver. “Part of it is about working with what you have.”

But small adjustments can have a big impact. The only difference, he said, between that dad-friendly Ted Lasso mustache and that badass Burt Reynolds mustache is some subtle shaping.

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