In his latest book, One Thousand Mustaches: A Cultural History of the Mo, Allan Peterkin dissects Movember’s ubiquitous mouth merkin. As this month’s whiskers near their expiration date, we met with the surprisingly mo-free U of T associate professor of psychiatry and family medicine to talk porn ’staches, power, and the truth behind “ironic” facial hair.
I sort of assumed you’d have a ’stache.
I have tried, but it just doesn’t grow in very well. I had one while I was doing publicity for the book, but it really wasn’t a very good look.
Was it one of those peach-fuzz teen moustaches?
It just grew in kind of patchy, probably because I have blond hair.
How does a psychiatrist become an internationally renowned facial-hair expert?
There is actually a technical term for it: pogonologist. Pogonos is Greek for beard. I joke that I’m a reluctant pogonologist. In 2001, I published my first book on facial hair, One Thousand Beards. At the time, I wanted to write a cultural history of something, and everything had been done—there was a cultural history of the pencil. Then I was walking to work one day and almost every guy I saw had some form of facial hair. This was back when everyone was still wearing goatees—do you remember that?
Yeah, it was a hangover from the Reality Bites era. Ugh.
That’s right. I started asking myself, “Why now?” and that’s what led to that first book. After that came out, I started getting contacted by a couple of media outlets a month to discuss facial hair—like when Al Gore lost the election and grew a beard, everyone wanted to ask me about it. Then my publisher noticed that the moustache had taken off as its own entity, which is how the second One Thousand book came about.
You mention that, historically, the beard and moustache used to come as a package deal. When did the ’stache go out on its own?
It’s hard to pinpoint when that first happened. There is some evidence that the Egyptians decided to keep the hair above the lip and shave the rest. Later it became a military signifier during the Crimean War and the Victorian era.
It was a symbol of power?
Right. Even today in India, if you’re a policeman, you’ll get a bonus if you grow a moustache because it looks kind of daunting and powerful.
Take me from the Victorian era to the Hitler toothbrush.
In the ’20s and ’30s, you had the rise of what was called the Hollywood ’stache, which was a very debonair, thinner sort of look. That stuck around on and off, and then of course we had World War II, and the most famous moustache in the world came along. After that, we didn’t see many moustaches for a long time.
You mentioned that after both World Wars, the clean-shaven look dominated. What is the psychological explanation there?
It’s actually more [due to] technology than psychology. Gillette introduced its blade to the mass-market before World War I. Troops were given them in their packs, so it was inexpensive and all of a sudden shaving was easy. We saw the introduction of that all-American, youthful, athletic guy as the male ideal.
And then along came the porn ’stache.
The porn ’stache, the swinger ’stache, and then in the mid- to- late ’70s, a moustache became a gay- or bi-signifier. You had this whole “clone look” coming out of the Castro [neighbourhood] in San Francisco—really short hair, tight jeans, a bomber jacket, and a ’stache. The moustache became very sexualized. The average guy didn’t want to be read that way, so that was sort of the death knell in terms of [mainstream] fashion, though you still had men who wore it as more of a trademark.
Personally, I think a man needs a certain number of years under his belt to pull one off.
A lot of young women don’t like it. I think one of the associations is that it’s kind of like something that your uncle has. But then, of course, one of your contemporaries might look at a guy in his twenties with a moustache and think, “Oh my god—”
I guess I just don’t understand that whole fashion-as-irony thing. If you are wearing something ironically, doesn’t that mean it’s ugly on a literal level?
I guess part of it is about being too cool for school. In my book, I talk about how facial hair is a performance of masculinity, so in this case it’s like saying, “I’m doing it, but I’m not taking it too seriously so neither should you.”
How has Movember influenced moustache culture?
I think it offers a safe zone where guys can try it and if it doesn’t look good, they can shave it off after the month, no worse for wear.
Any theories as to why Canada has raised more Movember money than any other country?
I guess November is a kind of dreary month [in Canada], so it comes at a good time. We don’t have American Thanksgiving. Beyond that, I’m not really sure.
It does seem to fit well with the whole “I am Canadian” image. Very macho beer commercial.
Yeah, that’s true. There is certainly a bonding ritual in terms of men and facial hair, whether that’s Movember or a playoff beard.
Is there anything a folically challenged man can do to help mother nature along?
Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a moustache transplant.
You’re kidding. In Canada?
Yes, there’s a man who does it here. And then some men are also trying Rogaine, which is generally used for baldness. There is also the product called Latisse, which is used for growing women’s lashes. Neither method is FDA-approved [for growing a moustache] though, so don’t try this at home.
Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds?
Ron Jeremy or Wilford Brimley?
Salvador DalÌ or John Waters?
Hulk Hogan or Yosemite Sam?
Favourite term for ’stache?
Mo is overdone.
Most hated form of facial hair?
Boy bands’ ultra-carved beards.
Electric razor or blade?