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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Dress Codes - The Mustache Is Inching Its Way Back - NYTimes

Phil Bray/Focus Features

THE ‘MILK’ MUSTACHE James Franco’s ’70s ’stache, sexy but soulful, may persuade men it is worthy of revival. More Photos >

IN case you have been in a hole the last few years, stylish men have cast aside razors for electric clippers and taken to styling their face and body hair — a k a “manscaping” — with a zeal not seen since Edward Scissorhands. The beard, that onetime symbol of rural cluelessness, has become a badge of urban hipsterdom. This has grown to include a spectrum of variations, from a week’s slackerly growth to a handsome Czar Nicholas II beard to a full-blown Rutherford B. Hayes thicket.

But its upstairs neighbor, the mustache, has had a bumpier ride. It, like the beard, enjoyed its most widespread popularity between 1850 and 1900; John Wilkes Booth, it must be conceded, had a beaut. But today, the mustache cannot shake its ties to the sexy-yet-buffoonish machismo of the mid-1970s, epitomized by Burt Reynolds, Sam Elliott and the Village People, ’stache sporters all.

Lately, though, there are signs that the mustache is at long last shaking off the most unsavory of those associations. Exhibit A is, of course, Brad Pitt, who grew one just before the filming of Quentin Tarantino’s new World War II film, “Inglourious Basterds,” and flaunted it for the paparazzi over the holidays. Emanuel Millar, the head of the film’s hair department, said he was surprised when Mr. Pitt showed up to shoot avec mustache and insisted on keeping it despite the fact that it was not true to the period. Exhibit B is, of course, the “Milk” Mustache — that is, the one worn by the scene-stealing James Franco, playing Sean Penn’s long-suffering and dreamy boyfriend in “Milk.” While Mr. Penn’s performance is the most talked-about aspect of the film, Mr. Franco’s mustache has elicited plenty of admiration on its own.

Exhibit C is Jason Giambi, the Yankees first baseman whose summer comeback coincided with his sprouting a particularly fine-looking mustache, prompting many to recall the 1972 World Series, when a handlebar-wearing Rollie Fingers and the Oakland A’s took on the clean-shaven Cincinnati Reds in “the Hairs vs. the Squares.”

Despite these fetching examples, the fate of the mustache is uncertain. Unlike the beard, it still carries plenty of baggage, skewing either too old-school gay (see “Milk”) or too old-school straight (see John R. Bolton).

No one knows that fact better than the men who have grown one. Douglas Friedman, 36, a photographer, has endured many a jab since he grew a “porn-star ’stache,” as the basic mustache is now widely known, on a whim 10 years ago. “I get a lot of good-natured ribbing, but it’s usually derogatory,” he said. Once he was asked for a photo of himself for the contributor’s page of a major fashion magazine, only to have it dropped without explanation. Later, he found out why: the magazine’s editor hates mustaches.

Other editors are only too happy to use the image and all it implies.

Dov Charney, 39, the often controversial chief executive of American Apparel, known for its provocative ads, grew a ’70s-style mustache in 2004.

“I had it for seven months — eight months max,” Mr. Charney said. But over the next three years, whenever newspapers, magazines or bloggers ran stories about him, even after a photographer had come to take a current picture, most ended up using an old, mustached picture.

“People were really attached to that image,” he said. “In both positive articles, where they wanted to portray me as this sex-positive playboy, as well as the ones where they wanted to demonize me.”

The problem is, the men who look good in a mustache are vastly outnumbered by those using it for comedic effect (See “Anchorman” and “Borat”). Jason Lee does an admirable job straddling the fence as the star of the television series “My Name Is Earl.” Though his mustache looks good on him, in a ’76 Camaro kind of way, it also reads as an albatross of sorts — a token of his character’s lowlife nature for which he is forever making amends. You have to wonder if his mustache will magically fall off on the last episode.

Even the pro-mustache Movember movement is a double-edged razor. Originating in Australia in 2004, Movember challenges men to grow mustaches for the month of November to raise money for men’s health charities; an estimated 200,000 men worldwide participated in 2008. It brings the mustache back every fall, only to kill it off a few weeks later.

James Austin, 37, a currency salesman with a United States bank in London, participated with 12 colleagues and, by the end of the month, was torn about shaving. “It actually suits a lot of people,” Mr. Austin said. “There’s one guy in particular who doesn’t have much of a top lip, so he looks better.”

There was little hope that his own would last, though. “My wife put the kibosh on that,” he said.

Brandon Roberts, 28, a hotel executive assistant in New York, grew a mustache after seeing the re-release of “Cruising” two years ago, only to realize that, happily, he was now the spitting image of his father in the 1970s. “I think it’s easier to pull off a beard,” he said. “Having a mustache takes a certain something. You have to have it and own it and pull it off.”

Others take that notion a step further, likening the mustache to women’s re-embrace of overtly sexual tokens like stilettos and push-up bras. In 2006, irked that the new popularity of the beard had left the mustache eating dust, Jay Della Valle, 28, persuaded nine 20-something men to grow mustaches and document the experience in a film, “The Glorius Mustache Challenge.” (It was released on DVD last year.) He now hosts mustache parties and events like Movember and the ’Stache Bash in St. Louis. Like some cross between Robert Bly and Elmer Gantry, he kicks these off with an evangelical ceremony, invoking the transfiguring masculine power of the mustache.

“You got to wear it with this attitude,” Mr. Della Valle said. “Your mustache is always there, saying, ‘Yeah, I have a mustache, so bring it on.’ If you have a sense of humility connected to your mustache, it doesn’t look as good as it should.”

But for all its reclaimed machismo, he added, “The bottom line is this: The best response to the question, ‘Why the mustache?’ is, because it’s fun.”

In other words, why should you grow a mustache? Because it’s not there.