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April 01, 2007

Thin Mustaches

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I suppose they'll be back: that's the nature of fashion. But I hope it's not any time soon.

What am I venting about this time? Why, thin mustaches of course! If you've watched many 1930s movies you'll probably have seen lots of them.

Here are some examples:

John Gilbert

Melvyn Douglas

William Powell

Clark Gable

In the Thirties those little mustaches -- some being almost pencil-line thin -- were considered quite masculine. Nowadays I suspect that they strike most folks as being fussy, almost sissy-like. That's how they strike me.

The thin-mustache fashion faded in the late 40s for whites, but hung on for a couple of decades longer for blacks. If a man grows a mustache sans-beard these days it's likely to cover the area twixt lip and nose and might range from trimmed to bushy in style.

Handlebars seem fairly rare. Waxed mustaches moreso.

As I write this I'm trying to remember when thin mustaches where popular before the Thirties (that's the peak -- the fashion ran from 1920 or before until 1950 or thereabouts), and the best I can come up with is foggy images of riverboat gamblers in movies or TV shows.

If such mustaches are indeed an historical rarity, it makes me wonder why they appeared at all and why they appeared when they did.

Perhaps such speculation is fruitless. They were a fashion. Sometimes fashions occur in response to outside forces (World War 2 fabric restrictions killed the Zoot Suit, for example) other times they are reactions to previous fashions (the post-WW2 New Look long, full skirts) and sometimes they just happen (heavily-padded shoulders for women around 1990).

Feel free to kick this around in Comments.



posted by Donald at April 1, 2007


These mustaches only work with a ultra-smooth, highly civilized style of dress. Men's looks are pretty slobbish these days, so I don't see them coming back for a long while.

Posted by: Thursday on April 1, 2007 11:02 PM

I think Gilbert Roland, the character actor, was among the last to show up with those wispy whiskers. Also, Ward Bond in Wagon Train.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 2, 2007 8:58 AM

With a face like Melvyn Douglas or Clark Gable a man can get away with anything. That said, pencil moustaches must recquire an inordinate amount of maintenance to keep them looking neat. Let me tellya, as a moustachio'd guy, it's enough of a pain keeping the hair that hangs down over the upper lip from getting scraggly. Has to be trimmed no less than every other day. The pencil moustache aficiondado has to worry about the hair from base of nose to upper lip as well.
Personally, I don't like the thin moustache. But neither do I like those walrus jobs that practically obscure the mouth.
My dad had a moustache so I have one. Probably wouldn't otherwise.

Posted by: ricpic on April 2, 2007 9:19 AM

Thin moustaches have made a comeback to a certain degree: movie stars like Jack Black, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp have all worn them recently.

I think what happens with a lot of male fashion is that symbols of masculinity quickly get subverted, and it's the subversion that ends up sticking in people's minds, destroying the fashion, for a while at least. Handle-bar moustaches are a good example. They were a symbol of redneck masculinity in the 70s, but by the 80s they had been co-opted by gay men. And it's the gay subversion that's stuck. I suspect something similar happened to the thin moustache - at one time a symbol of uppercrust masculinity, but then coopted by dandies and shady wheeler-dealer types, and therefore it lost its original signification.

Posted by: H. on April 2, 2007 9:20 AM

Pencil-thin beards have become fashionable among young men. Mustaches of similar narrowness may be next.

Posted by: Peter on April 2, 2007 10:09 AM

Speaking of subverting fashion . . . I've sort of wondered the same about the mustache the Hitler chose to wear.

He changed his handle-bar style in the 1920s when Charlie Chaplin was perhaps the most famous person on earth. Why would such an unfunny guy as Hitler deliberately choose a mustache style so closely associated with comedy? Was is a widely popular look in the 20s and 30s? Did other Nazis imitate the look?

Also, I can understand why it's unpopular now. Is there another example in history of a hairstyle that is so throughly tainted by a single prominent wearer that it falls out of fashion forever?

Posted by: Murphy on April 2, 2007 1:33 PM

Many fashions are started by the rich, in their ongoing and continual attempts to distinguish themselves from the lower orders. Usually this is done via the price of something.

The disposable razor and the clean face were popularized for the masses by WWI. So, this is probably a reaction to that. The upper classes trying to not-be-cleanshaven, while still referencing much of the look.

Following ricpic, perhaps the work required to maintain a thin moustache is more than that for most facial hair. If so, then for a man of leisure (and/or, who could afford a daily barbering) they would be an affectation hard for the hoi polloi to match. And that may partly explain their popularity.

I does seem that they never caught on. So they are unlike many fashions which get appropriated by the masses and then abandoned by the rich. In this case I'd guess that WWII killed it.

Posted by: Leonard on April 2, 2007 3:12 PM

Moustaches are very nation-specific at the moment. From recent observation: Americans sometimes wear them; Swiss men often wear them; Englishmen almost never do. This small piece of anecdotal data comes to you courtesy of my skiing trip to Zermatt last week.

Posted by: Graham Asher on April 2, 2007 3:13 PM

I believe the story about Hitler's 'tache is this: he shaved the sides off to recreate the style of the first world war among front-line soldiers who had to wear gas masks and needed a tight fit around the mouth. He did this to show solidarity with fellow WW1 veterans, who were his likeliest group of supporters.

Posted by: Graham Asher on April 2, 2007 3:16 PM

John Waters has one.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on April 2, 2007 3:18 PM

I wish the men's pony tail would fall out of fashion forever. A sure sign the guy is difficult to deal with.

Posted by: ricpic on April 2, 2007 5:37 PM

Jimmy Buffett:

Now they make new movies in old black and white
With happy endings, where nobody fights
So if you find yourself in that nostalgic rage
Honey, jump right up and show your age

I wish I had a pencil thin mustache
The boston blackie kind
A two toned ricky ricardo jacket
And an autographed picture of andy devine

I remember bein buck-toothed and skinny
Writin fan letters to sky king and penny
Oh I wish I had a pencil thin mustache
Then I could solve some mysteries too

Then its bandstand, disneyland, growin up fast
Drinkin on a fake i.d.
Yeah, and rama of the jungle was everyones bawana
But only jazz musicians were smokin marijuana
Yeah, I wish I had a pencil thin mustache
Then I could solve some mysteries too

Then its flat top, dirty bob, coppin a feel
Grubbin on the livin room floor (so sore)
Yeah, they send you off to college, try to gain a little knowledge,
But all you want to do is learn how to score

Yeah, but now Im gettin old, dont wear underwear
I dont go to church and I dont cut my hair
But I can go to movies and see it all there
Just the way that it used to be


Oh, I could be anyone I wanted to be
Maybe suave errol flynn or the sheik of araby
If I only had a pencil thin mustache
Then I could do some cruisin too

Yeah, bryl-cream, a little dabll do yah
Oh, I could do some cruisin too

Posted by: John Emerson on April 2, 2007 7:06 PM

Say, doesn't Ted Turner still sport one of those? I read somewhere that he has a Rhett Butler fetish.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on April 2, 2007 7:41 PM

Is there another example in history of a hairstyle that is so throughly tainted by a single prominent wearer that it falls out of fashion forever?

The Donald Trump 'do?

Posted by: Peter on April 2, 2007 9:09 PM

If I might make a shameless plug, let me mention that I put up some thoughts on your interesting post over at Right Reason:

The upshot, for those who don't feel like clicking over, is that the slender mustache's fussiness and sissy-like-ness are meant to underscore the confident power of the man who wears it.

Let me add here H.'s and Leonard's explanations for the rise and fall of the thin mustache are also interesting. I have a hunch that symbols of both wealth (Leonard and H.) and masculinity (H.) are especially susceptible to subversion, due to the pronounced desirability and scarcity of both qualities.

Some observers ridicule the public's fixation on fashion, but it seems to me that what accounts for the fixation is a combination of an attraction to beauty and an abiding interest in the values that fashion attempts to represent.

Posted by: Max Goss on April 3, 2007 1:34 PM

Looking at the collected photos, have you noticed how wide these gentlmen's eyebrows vs.their mustaches are? The wider the top horizontal, the thinner the bottom one... Weird, no?

Posted by: Tatyana on April 3, 2007 3:26 PM

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