How does your mo' grow?

Davey’s moustache has provoked reactions ranging from disbelief to jealousy. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Davey’s moustache has provoked reactions ranging from disbelief to jealousy. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)


“That one thing should stand for another is no harm, until the thing itself loses any meaning on its own.” – Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods.

I’ve been amazed by the reactions I’ve had to my little social experiment: growing a moustache. It’s been fun to see how a little facial fuzz can spark even total strangers off; some have almost fallen over laughing. It is quite a massive moustache but I thought that was rather rude.

Why do people find moustaches so odd? Perhaps such powerful reactions are based on what ’taches meant during apartheid. The security forces looked like they all came from what musician James Phillips called Snor City, and out of the two main things that moustaches supposedly represent – virility and authority – I’m betting those manne were growing them for the latter reason.

This has led me to conclude that, for the modern man to grow hair under his nose, he either doesn’t take himself too seriously (and is therefore able to laugh at himself) or his moustache denotes that, actually, he is way too serious about himself. Generally, moustaches look ridiculous (especially on leaders such as Robert Mugabe and Adolf Hitler), but they can be iconic (what were Salvador Dali, Charlie Chaplin or Magnum, PI without one?) and even, on occasion, suit the wearer, as in the case of Sam Elliott and Frank Zappa.

This, then, is the third reason for face lace: to enhance (or crucify) character, however real or imagined this is in the mind of the moustachee.

Moustaches go back thousands of years but never really became fashionable until the late 19th century, when they became considered an expression of masculinity, style and sophistication. There was even a period just before World War I when conscripts were forbidden to shave their moustaches off.

Lately moustaches have come back into the limelight as part of the hipster culture, along with that other face invader – the beard. Hipsters and social media reinvigorated the culture of cultivating crumb-catchers, along with other steampunk or retro attire such as braces and bowler hats, but hipsters are apparently abandoning facial hair as fast as they picked it up, as moving on to set newer trends is the very essence of the movement.

Movember, “a case of activism in visible action” that aims to “change the face of men’s health”, is the other main culprit.

The focus is on encouraging males to go for regular screening for cancer and to educate themselves on general health matters. Begun in Australia 12 years ago, the movement is already supported by more than five million members, who have raised about R6?billion to fund programmes focusing on prostate and testicular cancer, poor mental health and physical inactivity.

I surmise that the movement’s real popularity is owed to the fact that, secretly, men love growing moustaches and now they have a legitimate excuse to do so.

The moustache is often sported because the host body that the hairy parasite is allowed to flourish on wishes to appear older than it really is. But, paradoxically, a study

has shown that subjects, though they perceived men with moustaches to be older, also saw them as more likely to be aggressive and thus less socially mature.

Listen up, young South Africans: if you are unemployed, best grow a moustache, and quickly. A 1990 study by JA Reed and EM Blunk found that employers rated moustachioed prospective employees higher in terms of everything from nonconformity to intelligence and general competency.

Although women’s reactions to moustaches vary from finding them fairly sexy to absolutely repulsive, men find a woman with hair under the nose to be the ultimate turn-off, according to recent surveys. Fortunes are made on a daily basis as members of the fairer sex strive to wax themselves free of the Frida Kahlo look.

Some of my female friends are jealous because I can choose whether to grow a ’tache. Let it be known, it’s not all fun: moustaches itch, so they are fondled far too often, and they do collect food, necessitating washing after every meal. And I don’t think I’ll ever get used to raising a beer bottle to my face and not being able to feel it hit my upper lip.

The humble moustache, then, balances delicately on a narrow threshold of what is deemed attractive or ugly, and reveals what extraordinary importance we may attach to something as flimsy as a few facial follicles.

Derek Davey

Derek Davey

Derek Davey is a sub-editor in the Mail & Guardian’s supplements department who occasionally puts pen to paper. He has irons in many metaphysical fires – music, mantras, mortality and mustaches. Read more from Derek Davey

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