Grabbing hold of historical handlebars


What do U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder, actor Burt Reynolds, the late CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite and legendary baseball player Reggie Jackson all have in common? Here’s a hint: Tom Selleck. Give up? Correct answer: Mustaches.

There’s a group — admittedly wandering into intentional self-parody — that seeks to reinvigorate the hirsute lip as a mainstay of modern manly grooming. The organization calls itself the American Mustache Institute. The organization’s website (www.americanmustacheinstitute.org) reflects on it origins and cultural significance, “Broadly considered the bravest organization in the history of mankind behind only the U.S. military and the post-Jim Henson Muppets, the Institute serves as the ACLU of the downtrodden Mustached American people, making its headquarters in the City of St. Louis, as it is home to the world’s largest mustache – the Gateway Arch.”

The group sponsors an annual gathering, “the ‘Stache Bash” as a charity fundraiser… and venue to exhibit one’s proboscis pelt. This year it will be held on October 27 in Mesa, Arizona. This year’s beneficiary is the Barrow Neurological Foundation, a non-profit support foundation dedicated to raising funds for Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

While an inescapably silly fixation, the AMI causes us to think about the changing currents of popular fashion. Can you name the last U. S. President to have worn a mustache? William Howard Taft. Next year will mark a solemn century of commanders in chief with bare lips.

The AMI not so facetiously attributes the decline of the popular mustache to the end of World War II, when Clark Gable alone, seemed to be the only man capable of pulling it off.

As the AMI states, “An after-effect of World War II’s popularity was clean-cut U. S. soldiers returning to create a new America. They were free of not just the “toothbrush” or “dictator” style mustache worn by … Adolph Hitler, but seemingly, and very sadly, America became devoid of flavor-saving upper lip garnishes altogether.”

Gone from the era of Happy Days was any reference to lip lint. It was as if the Civil War never happened. With one fell swoop of the straight razor, Generals Ambrose Burnside, JEB Stuart, Romeyn Ayers and Rear Admiral Stephen Luce were remembered only for military achievements, rather than stunning facial plumage.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, only beatniks and their culturally marginal descendants, the hippies, dared to challenge the dominant paradigm. John F. Kennedy, remembered for many things, was also the first president to rebuke wearing the inaugural top hat. With the top hat stowed in the attic of history, smooth faced politicians dealt an apparent death blow to any hirsute political hopeful. The monocle had died years earlier. The mustache was 50 years in its grave.

The 1970s signaled change. Bearing the guidon for this renaissance was none other than the Bandit himself, Burt Reynolds. As AMI describes the time, “Americans were accepting and embracing the power and strength of the mustache and including it in what is now known as the 1970s fashion “Triple Threat” — the mustache, the perm and the turtleneck.”

What they fail to mention is that the Bandit’s foe, Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), sported his own pencil-thin emblem of authority. AMI does, however, note, “Indeed, local and state law enforcement (during the 1970s) began issuing standard-issue ‘Chevron’ style mustaches to all police recruits along with their badges, uniforms, and weapons.”

The continuing influence is noted in the film Super Troopers when the veteran trooper, Ramathorn (Jay Chandrasekhar), tells his subordinate, Foster, “Grow a… mustache!”

Indeed, as we slip further into fall, when frat boys let their beards down and AMI selects its annual Robert Goulet Memorial Mustached American of the Year Award, we know that October leads us to the mustache holy month: Mo-vember.