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Sunday, February 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
The mustache and discriminating tastes
By Leslie Koren
Focus your eyes, in particular, on that prime real estate known as the male upper lip, and you will witness one of the great generational dividers: The mustache.
Once a sign of virility, the great majority of young America now assigns three possibilities to the mustache wearer: Porn star, cop or homosexual.
So while many in this generation adventurously accessorize their mugs with facial hair of various shapes and styles the goatee, soul patch, Vandyke, full beard, mutton chops and petite goatee are all acceptable adornments few will dare wear the solo 'stache. Exceptions to be addressed later.
Over the years, its return has been heralded and even attempted by a brave few. But while today's youth have embraced bell-bottoms, platform shoes and disco, there is nary a mustache in sight.
Consider the current reality of New York City actor J. Anthony Crane, 32 and playing the role of Dimitry in the Off-Broadway production of "The Brothers Karamazov Part II." It is a rich role, but one that requires a mustache and explanation in social settings.
"I'm in a play. I'm in a play," he says as he notices an unfamiliar female's gaze.
Five years ago, Kevin Lipski was sitting in his cubicle when he had an epiphany: Not only did his peers not wear mustaches, they were against them. He was 28, married, and living in San Francisco, so he decided to face the discriminators head on. Terming the effort "Mustache Summer," he coerced about a dozen friends to join him in an experiment and documented it on the Web (www.mustachesummer.com).
"People I barely knew would come up to me and say, 'What are you doing? Only gay guys and cops have mustaches.' Friends would go to my wife behind my back and ask: 'Are you really going to let him do this?' " he said.
Esquire magazine's editor-in-chief, David Granger, said the mustache is fighting an uphill battle because when men look back at their life in photos, the ones in which they look the worst are the mustache years.
"Mustaches unfailingly make men look heavier and, given that photographs also add a few pounds, men always regret their mustaches," he said.
The mustache last lived in full glory in the '70s and early '80s, when studs like Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck kept the mustache riding high.
According to Mac Fulfer, the author of "Amazing Face Reading," the upper lip expresses "feminine energy," and the mustached man is actually extremely sensitive about being a sensitive man.
"You want to appear strong at all times. You become defensive if your masculinity is questioned," Fulfer says.
The mustache has always had negative connotations, said Allan Peterkin, a Toronto psychologist and professor who wrote the book "One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair." But he attributes the modern anti-'stache movement to the '70s, when mustaches became synonymous with swingers.
There are cultural exceptions. There is the much-discussed police and firefighter mustache, which may help command authority in menacing situations.
And there are ethnic exceptions. A young black man may choose a pencil-thin mustache and still be considered stylish, perhaps in homage to Harlem and the '20s. Many Hispanic men have chosen the mustache as a signifier, so there is no stigma, said Latina beauty editor Yesenia Almonte. Young Latinos are choosing a thinner, more stylish version, to differentiate themselves from their fathers.
The anti-'stache sentiment makes all the more impressive the sacrifice of the men of Mustache for Kids. An annual effort by different men on both coasts, these kind souls get donations to grow mustaches in the name of the Make-A-Wish foundation, which grants dreams to gravely ill children.
"It was really strange ... just how people reacted to you. You would explain that you are doing it for charity, and still they look at you pityingly," said Steve Farrell, 28, of Nyack, N.Y., the winner of last year's contest.
Regardless of its past, there are many who believe that everything returns sooner or later, and that the mustache will have its time again.
Wallace Pinfold, author of "A Closer Shave," said: "The bow tie has come back, Richard Nixon has come back. Yes, I think it will come back, but I wouldn't say get out your calendar yet."
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