By The London Historian
Imagine the scene. You leave your flat to go and meet your mates, the leaves are all but fallen from the trees, fireworks are booming in the distance and moustachioed men are parading all around you. Moustaches everywhere! Thin ones, thick ones, goatee ones, beardy ones. No, not another nightmare where Dalston Dazed And Confused hipsters invade your local coffee shop, but a regular Movember day in London town.
Whilst you may be of the opinion that there are better things you can do for charity than cultivate a furry appendage to your upper lip, listen up! Movember has raised awareness for men’s health issues, including prostate cancer, and has raised a not-too-shabby $174m worldwide since 2004. “Mo Bros” from across our globe have helped the foundation hit the top 100 of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) worldwide.
But what about the moustache? Well for as long as there has been man, there has been facial hair. Fact. Let’s get the basic biological wonderment out in the open from the get-go. However, what has varied widely over time has been London’s tolerance and regard for the noble moustache. Internationally there has been a spectrum of reasons behind embellishing one’s upper lip. The Russians did it to keep warm, the Samurai did it to intimidate their enemies, religious factions have their own plethora of rules, with bearded abundance being order of the day according to the bible [Leviticus 19:27 “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the edges of your beard”]. Fine. Great. So what was the great inspiration for the British facial hair? The answer: vanity.
All us London guys wanted was to look manly and stylish (apparently). Too stylish, however, for the powers that be. Jack, Tom and Harry wanted to look fabulous whilst they sell their rags at Smithfield market, but how dare they?! If you are a peasant, or a beggar, then you shall look like one and you shall not confuse our society with ideas above your station! The nobility, royals and lawmakers wanted this luxury to stay within their ranks. Sumptuary Laws, regulating clothing and appearance, were first introduced during the Roman times and have cropped up now and then across Europe, being put into legislation during the medieval times and as recently as the Elizabethan times. If ever there was a time of the fashion police then this was it.
Windsor-born moustache-hater King Henry VI went all out against the goatee, tashe, beard and decreed that “No manner of man that will be taken for an Englishman shall have no beard above his mouth; that is to say that he have no hairs on his upper lip so that the said lip be once at least shaven every fortnight or for equal growth with the nether lip; and if any man be found among the English contrary hereunto, that it shall be lawful to every man to take them and their goods as Irish enemies”. Eeesh. Imagine the naked upper lips sipping cider around London Fields if this guy was still in charge. The severity was eased off during the following Tudor reigns, but facial hair has remained the subject of bizarre legislation over the centuries.
Before Hitler killed off the desire of anyone wanting to rock around London with a ‘toothbrush style’ moustache, it was actually (gulp) a popular style amongst the working classes during the 1920s. Yes, you read right. Wedged into fashion by the likes of London born silent actor Charles Spencer Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin was born into poverty and grew up in the slums of Kennington. He had two stints in the workhouse before he reached age 9. Overcoming and riding roughshod over his adversity, Charlie shot to fame. By the age of 24 he was hot property in Hollywood. If anyone had experience of the class system, in a relatively brief time period, it was our Charlie. Whilst creating his most famous character The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin explained that he “added a small moustache, which, I reasoned would add age without hiding my expression”. It was more than that though; his vagrant character with his badly fitting suit, bowler hat, and cane, was a parody of the class struggle he was all too familiar with. Chaplin’s humble moustache was now an iconic tool of social satire, a commentary on ‘The American Dream’ and legendary enough that two of his fake taches sold at auction in 2004 for £12,000 and £18,000.
Over recent decades the resurgence of the moustache has seen its image emblazoned on products hanging in London’s shops, lit up above bars such as The Moustache Bar in Stoke Newington and forcing a renaissance in luxury men’s barbers specialising in keeping those bad boys in shape. But is society too quick to mock the tan-shoed, turned up jean wearing, flannel shirted hipsters? A 1991 study by J.A. Reed and E.M. Blunk found that men with upper lip hair were evaluated better in terms of masculinity, maturity, physical attractiveness, dominance, self-confidence, courage… you get the idea. Lock up your wifes, clock in for overtime. Men with moustaches are clearly a force to be reckoned with by us guys who cannot muster such a valiant masterpiece. King Henry the moustache hater may have had the right idea after all.
In light of all the charity and controversy surrounding them, if you fancy hanging on to your moustache beyond Movember then grab yourself a replica Victorian moustache mug, with added moustache guard (at www.etsy.com). After all, no one wants wax in their cuppa English Tea, right? Alternatively find somewhere to celebrate the failure of infamous moustachio Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Take pleasure in your liberty to decide either way since the Thanksgiving Act passed in 1606 was repealed in 1859. Finally, if you’ve really gone whole hog with your new addition then get your whiskers over to the Handlebar Club, held on the first Friday of the month at The Windsor Castle Pub in Marylebone.