NEW YORK – It started as a superstitious stunt, but then things got hairy.
Neils Kemper’s favorite German soccer team was on a roll. So as not to jinx the team’s winning streak, he stopped shaving while the lucky run lasted. But when Eintracht Frankfurt finally lost, Kemper, a 23-year old Economics student at The New School in Manhattan, couldn’t bring himself to part with the newfound fuzz.
“I got so used to it, I didn’t want to shave it all off,” he said.
Away from the watchful eye of his facial hair-hating girlfriend in Frankfurt, Kemper decided to experiment with a mustache. He hardly imagined that he was entering dangerous territory. His friends made snide remarks. Female classmates told him they hated it and encouraged him to shave. Even complete strangers voiced disapproval.
“Everywhere I went people stared,” he said. “People said it was old fashioned, that I looked like a policeman. One guy even said I looked like Hitler.”
It’s not easy for white hipsters to wear hair above the lip these days. A fashion staple for some decades, the mustache has all but disappeared among trendy circles in the 21st century. Only 30 years removed from its golden age in the 1970s, the mustache has gone out of style, almost becoming a taboo in the New York City fashion world.
After a generally clean-cut decade in the 1980s, facial hair resurfaced as a fashion statement in the 1990s. While several versions of beards, goatees and sideburns, as well as various “below the mouth” growths, are currently widely acceptable, mustaches seem to have vanished among young white urban males. Bastions are holding out in Arab, black and Latino neighborhoods. But among mainstream style mavens, the mustache is history.
“I hardly see mustaches anymore,” said Francisco Gavilla, a New York stylist with Vidal Sassoon, the international hair salon. “With a goatee? Yes. Alone? Never. That went out with Tom Selleck,” he said, referring to the 1980’s action star, most noted for his role as television’s Magnum P.I., the sexy detective in Hawaii.
Shaving guru Eric Malka agrees.
“It’s just not cool anymore,” said Malka, president and co-founder of “The Art of Shaving,” a shaving and spa company based in Miami. “I would never dream of just having a mustache.”
He attributed the mustache’s downfall to an image problem. In the 1970s, mustaches symbolized masculinity and were brought to life with Hollywood tough guys such as Burt Reynolds and Charles Bronson. Today, mustaches are more commonly linked in many minds with drug dealers, pimps and dictators.
“The mustache has become the sign of a villain. Bad people have mustaches,” Malka said. “Ask anyone today the first thing they associate with a mustache and they’ll say ‘Saddam Hussein.'”
Certainly, mustaches are not reviled by other cultures, which consider upper lip hair a sign of virility.
In the Arab world, removing a man’s mustache is viewed as the ultimate sign of disrespect. After American soldiers found the deposed Iraqi despot sporting a disheveled Santa-like beard in December, his face was shaved of all but his trademark mustache.
“The mainstream today has little facial hair. A clean face implies conformity,” said Dr. Carl L. Hart, a faculty member at the Department of Psychology at Columbia University in New York. “In the black community, it is still a sign of manhood.”
Dr. Hart, who is black, sports a thin mustache along with long dreadlocks. He said he viewed facial hair as part of his identity and could not imagine being without some form of it. He believes that the disappearance of mustaches mostly has to do with its declining social significance.
“Every generation has its own way of expressing itself,” he said. “An Afro used to mean something. Braided hair today means something. Mustaches have no expression these days.”
As with many other fashion trends, Hollywood has played a major role in molding these public perceptions. Hardly any celebrities don mustaches anymore. Thus, experts in the fickle world of fashion believe that mustaches are primed for a renaissance.
“If the mustache comes back it will come back with the youth,” said Gavilla, a facial hair grooming specialist, who’s eager to see the return of the mustache. “Everyone is still keeping it [facial hair] so close — eventually someone will venture out.”
Malka is also confident that the mustache will eventually find its way back into modern pop culture.
“Fashion is a cycle,” he said. “I do think it will come back, but I don’t foresee it happening anytime soon.”
Kemper, for his part, hopes it comes back sooner rather than later. In advance of a recent visit from his girlfriend, he succumbed and shaved off his mustache. However, he doesn’t rule out sprouting another one in the future.
“I hope the day comes when people can grow a mustache without being considered weird,” he said.