As anyone who’s ever played with a Woolly Willy knows, facial hair is fun. But none so fun as the mustache, that bold yet whimsical upper lip sprout with so many iterations. Originated by Persian horsemen in 300 B.C., as far as we’ve yet discovered, the mustache has long been the symbol for male virility and nobility, until it reached its current period of disgrace as a hipster accoutrement. But lately I have been wondering about the natural and biological history of what the French so aptly call la moustache.
It would be 2,250 years before NASCAR caught up the mustache.
For a stylistic statement occupying the narrow real estate between the nose and the upper lip, mustaches enjoy a nearly unbelievable number of species within its genus; truly, the mustache is a miracle of adaptive radiation. Some varieties can be best described by their most famous hosts, both heroic and nefarious: There’s the Western mustache group, exemplified by the Sam Elliot, and also in its evil counterparts, the Yosemite Sam, the Josef Stalin, and the John Bolton. The Fu Manchu owes its name to racist 20th Century origins in pulp fiction, but once grown into a full “horseshoe” style, has since been redeemed by Mötorhead and American Chopper. The Handlebar finds its zenith in Rollie Fingers, Dick Dastardly, and Salvador Dali. Then there’s the proud Mexican mustache, associated with armed revolution: the Pancho Villa, the Emiliano Zapata, and the Zorro. The latter also qualifies as one of the thin pencil mustaches, or “lip-brows,” like the John Waters and the Gomez Addams, which have a dignified and aristocratic quality, while bushy mustaches like the Friedrich Nietzsche, the Mark Twain and the Chester A. Arthur exude their own leonine charisma. Hitler’s mustache is so iconic it should be attempted by no one else. Tom Selleck’s mustache is so exquisite that every man, woman, and child should be required by law to wear one.
Mario has been known to “freestyle.”
While mustaches retain popularity in many countries and regions, such as India, the Middle East, and Latin America, they have languished here in the United States in the past twenty years. They are worn only by retro holdouts who are supremely assured of their masculinity — the “awesome uncle” category — or lonely, perverted outsiders who have no idea the fashion has changed since the days of public porno theatres in Times Square — the “creepy uncle” category. They are handy for covering scars and hare lips, for concealing lip-twitching “tells” during poker, and for preserving wayward soup for later consumption. (Or booze.) They’re also not called “handlebars” for nothing. To be sure, some people should never wear mustaches. Conversely, some people who shaved off their mustaches to keep “with the times” should be court-ordered to grow them back immediately. (I’m talking to you, Alex Trebek. AND YOU, DAD. I’M TALKING TO YOU.)
Hair is a uniquely mammalian trait designed to conserve the body heat necessary to maintain a constant body temperature. We’re not sure exactly why, but in the course of human evolution, we have lost most of our body hair, except in the places most prone to heat loss: the top of the head, the armpits, and the pubis. This must be the first and foremost reason we have preserved our under-nose hair: it insulates air traveling into the lungs, keeping our core temperature from dropping precipitously each time we take a breath in the winter. Take as Exhibit A the walrus, which has every reason to keep an aura of warm air around its mouth and nostrils by rocking a righteous ‘stache:
Yet with its upturned nostrils, and most animals’ wet noses, I suspect that air insulation isn’t the primary reason for the mustache. So we turn to the animal with what is undoubtedly the most magnificent cookie duster in the animal kingdom: The Emperor Tamarin Monkey.