One hairy lip can speak volumes. And send a lot of mixed messages.
Throughout history, the moustache has been associated with everything from power and evil to porn and buffoonery. It has been militarized, politicized, sexualized, spiritualized and glamorized.
Mouthbrow. Crumb catcher. Soup strainer. Face lace. Lip sweater. However you refer to this strip of whiskers, some variation of it has adorned many of the most loved (Gandhi) and loathed (Hitler) male faces in human history.
Now, after decades of being mocked and maligned as the lowliest form of facial fuzz, the moustache is enjoying a cultural renaissance.
So says a Toronto author and male grooming expert whose new book tells the story of the 'stache through the ages and looks at its manifestations in politics, war, religion, movies, sports and literature.
Allan Peterkin credits the annual phenomenon of the charity movement Movember -- the international campaign in which men grow facial hair during the month of November to raise funds for prostate cancer research -- and the retro/modern moustaches sported by Hollywood heavyweights such as Ryan Gosling and James Franco, for making it once again hip to be hairy-lipped.
"The moustache has thus become a spectacular, embodied performance of masculinity in all its post-millennial complexity and ambiguity. To wear a stache is to wear your personality on your sleeve (or in this case, your face)," he writes in One Thousand Mustaches: A Cultural History of the Mo.
The book, which contains an illustrated gallery of 'stache styles -- the Chaplin, the Chevron, the Painter's Brush, the Pyramid, etc. -- also explores the psychological interpretations of this seemingly superficial facial feature.
"Throughout the ages, we've read people's faces for cues about who they are, and facial hair historically has been a pretty powerful cue for men," Peterkin says during a phone interview.
But for most of history, he notes, the beard and moustache were treated as a single package, governed by religious, political, class and social conventions. So compared with the many tomes that have been penned about the beard, relatively little has been written on the "evolution of lip whiskers."
(Speaking of whiskers, Peterkin speculates in the book that ancient Egyptian men, depicted on artifacts sporting a pencil-thin line of hair on their upper lip, may have been paying homage to the cat, since feline worship was prevalent at the time.)
"Not only does the mustache come first in human history, but it also represents an elegant balance between young and old, the smooth female face and the overly furry male face," Peterkin writes. "Its horizontal line marks up and down, heaven and hell, who's in and who's out."
This is not his first book about facial hair. The psychiatrist and former Winnipegger (who went to medical school at the University of Manitoba) has written six other books, including One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair and The Bearded Gentleman: The Style Guide to Shaving Face, which he co-authored with New York style expert Nick Burns.
His hirsute pursuits began about a decade ago. He'd been searching for a topic for a cultural history when one day, while walking to work in downtown Toronto, he noticed that every third male face he encountered had some kind of facial hair.
"I said to myself, 'What's going on?'" he recalls. "We had been pretty clean-shaven in the '80s. Why suddenly in the '90s did facial hair come back? It proved to be a much deeper subject than I had thought."
Peterkin says he became a "reluctant pogonologist" (Greek for beard expert) after his first book came out in 2002.
"Every month thereafter I'd get a query from Esquire or the Wall Street Journal or National Geographic," says one of the featured experts in Mansome, the new Morgan Spurlock documentary about male grooming and masculinity.
"For example, Al Gore loses the election and he grows a beard and people want to know why he did that."
The word "moustache" comes from the Doric Greek "mystax," meaning upper lip. This is ironic, the book notes, since the Greeks refused to wear one without a beard. The Spartans, on the other hand, punished those convicted of cowardice by removing half of their moustaches in an act of public shaming and symbolic castration.
The moustache has been an iconic symbol of masculinity, adventure and independence, but its reputation has also been consistently challenged by layers of historical projections. Traditionally, Peterkin says, the mo has been identified with the three Fs: "fops, foreigners and fiends."
It had its heydey from the middle to the end of the 19th century, when it was a staple for military men and Victorian gents on both sides of the pond.
The 1970s was another peak period for the moustache, Peterkin says, especially among porn stars, swingers, gay clones (homosexual men who appeared in dress and style as an idealized working-class man -- eg. disco band the Village People).
Meanwhile, because of its sexual connotation, perhaps, the average Joe was hesitant to grow one, he says, until the ironic, postmodern new millennium when all types of facial hair became acceptable.
"Our dads and grandfathers could never have gotten away with funky facial hair at work," says Peterkin, a blond who sports sideburns but admits he can only grow a rather patchy 'stache himself. "Men of all ages are now free to grow facial hair."
As he explains in the book, the 1990s paved the way for a facial-hair explosion not seen since Victorian times. Kurt Cobain and other grunge rockers sprouted chin fuzz, and the goatee -- the perfect way to wear a beard without looking like your dad -- soon became ubiquitous.
Some people, Peterkin says, believe the moustache's renaissance may also be a post-feminist expression. "It's one of the very few things now that men can do that women can't."
The key difference with the lip and face fuzz being cultivated in various permutations and combinations today, he says, is that postmodern facial hair is being worn ironically, with the wink of an eye.
Jeremy Regan, a Winnipeg hairstylist and owner of Hunter & Gunn, a new retro barbershop in West Broadway, says he's definitely noticed an upswing in moustaches among the under-30 crowd since the advent of Movember in 2007. (Hunter & Gunn recently started selling moustache wax.)
"I think it started as a funny ha-ha way of bonding with your brethren," Regan, 35, says, "but has since morphed into a rite of passage, with young men identifying with their fathers and grandfathers.
The bonding aspect, he says, combined with the retro-hip feel of popular culture -- i.e. TV shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire -- has given young men a free pass to experiment with their facial hair and try things that were considered cheesy even a couple of years ago.
"From personal experience, I will say that wearing a 'stache, no matter how creepy it may look, has never made me feel more like a man," Regan says.