There is simply no such thing as a neutral beard or moustache. Whatever the style, the hirsute male can always expect a reaction. Or, at least, nearly always. There are, in fact, a few of us left who still can't quite make up our minds.
We are the full-grown cherubs; the men with the faces of boys. We can't grow facial hair, or at least not properly, not in a way that doesn't draw the censure of snickering teenagers on the bus. Publicly, we're airily dismissive of it all. Secretly, though, we hate everyone with a beard. We fear them a little. And we long to steal the hair on their faces.
In the past, this has been a mere niggle. Each November, when well-meaning men's health charities renamed the month Movember and asked for sponsored moustaches around the world, the less virile would console themselves with the fact that social (all right, female) disapproval would ensure that all those taches would disappear by Christmas.
But this time around things are different; There's an ominous tendency amongst the genuinely hip towards moustaches, and in the last year it has reached fever pitch. It began when Brad Pitt cultivated a lip-rug for the filming of Inglourious Basterds. It got worse when James Franco offered a delicately hairy confection of his own. And then Hamish Bowles (pictured, right), European editor-at-large of Vogue, joined Terry Richardson, the feted fashion photographer, to give it an edge. Moustaches are cool.
"In any men's magazine now, probably every third face you see is furry in some way," says Allan Peterkin, author of a cultural history of facial hair, One Thousand Beards. "There are a lot of great moustaches walking around. If you can't grow one and you want to, you're really at a bit of a loss."
It's not that we want facial hair, exactly – but that we'd like to be able to make the decision for ourselves. It's just easier to be a confidently refined male when you know that your very face contains the possibility of hulking machismo.
That's not how it is for me. If you want a hairy neck, look no further. I'm your man. Cheeks and the upper lip, on the other hand, appear to be a problem, populated as they are, at best, with patches of rust, randomly distributed, and a French schoolboy's candy-floss wisp. This remains the case after weeks of growth, during which period the clucking enquiries as to whether I am trying to grow a beard take on the same humouring tone that mothers employ when their baby boys pretend to be astronauts.
For anyone wishing to look up to date, this is a problem. According to Richard Scorer, a hairdresser and men's grooming expert who has worked on photo shoots for magazines including Esquire, GQ, and Dazed & Confused, the look has taken a firm hold in the hip East End of London.
"You get lots of boys busting a moustache in Brick Lane market on a Sunday," he says. "Five years ago it would have been comedy, and now it's how people go to work. I shot some really high-end fashion the other day, and there was a guy wearing a moustache and taking it totally seriously."
And this is not your father's moustache. Instead of a miniature broom under his nose, the modern-day dandy wears something villainous, strokable, and as twirly as possible. However sternly the moustache might seem to be worn, the face it adorns is never entirely straight. "Men grow facial hair now with a bit of irony," says Allan Peterkin. "It's rebellious but playful at the same time. They're saying: 'I'm no corporate slave. I can get away with this in a way my grandfather couldn't.'
I'm not actually sure this is a particularly positive development, given that the louche moustache Peterkin and Scorer point to basically just makes everyone who adopts it look like he's about to make off with your life savings on the pretext of selling you a set of spoons. To style your clothes ironically is perhaps just about acceptable, in a very limited range of contexts; but to style your face as if you don't take it seriously is surely some kind of fundamental admission of defeat.
But fashion is a merciless god, and if we want to look on-trend, we beardless boys are going to have to find some kind of solution. "To improve facial hair is difficult," says Dr Peter Williams, Hair Transplant Surgeon at the Hospital Group. He suggests that minoxidil, beloved by the follicularly-challenged everywhere in the form of Rogaine, might help, but it's unproven.
Richard Scorer is no more optimistic. "If you've got a gappy beard you just have to give up," he says. But what if you're desperate?
"Well, if you're an old man, there's a thickening spray called Mane," he says doubtfully. "It thickens each hair so they cover more space. But we are really in the realms of cheesiness here. On a shoot I could make it work. As a normal human being I wouldn't go anywhere near it." Meanwhile, Keith Flett – organiser of the Beard Liberation Front, so he should know – points to a tried and tested approach. "The more you prune it the more it grows," he says sagely. "It's like a hedge." Unfortunately, while that tactic might conceivably make hair appear a little coarser, and at least make stubble a little more Clint Eastwood, there's no evidence it will actually promote growth in the vast deserts between my occasional follicular oases.
And that's about it, unless you're willing to ask Dr Williams for a transplant. The only alternative is simulation. "You can buy very good theatrical products," says Allan Peterkin. "But that would definitely be the last resort."
Well, last resort it may be. But I've had enough of feeling like a man-boy. Two weeks ago, I paid a visit to Screenface, a professional cosmetics supplier that provides hair and make-up for a string of major TV shows and films. Manager Breanna McCarthy explains that a hand-knotted 'postiche' moustache (from £39, rising to £141 for a full beard) comes on a lace backing that can be glued to the upper lip. You just trim the droopy walrus-type prototype back to your desired style, and glue it on.
This is easier said than done. Still, after a certain amount of trial and error, my retro nosebush is in place. It's kind of ridiculous, admittedly – I look more like one of the Thompson twins than Nick Cave – but I rather like its solemnity. My facial hair has come to seem a matter of character, and not merely style.
No one I encounter in my moustachioed afternoon seems to suspect. I could swear that fellow moustache-men shoot me admiring, conspiratorial looks, and I'm sure two teenagers behind the counter in the newsagent treat me with a little more deference than usual. Some people even look unnerved. "People will not sit next to you," says Keith Flett. "There's a subconscious association with being dodgy. But facial hair definitely adds gravitas."
The adolescents in the shop certainly seem to think so. I ask them how old they would guess I am, and when they estimate 30, my heart sings a little: it's not six months since I've been ID'd buying an 18-Certificate computer game. Eventually I reveal that it's a fake. "No way, man!" one whistles admiringly. "It looks totally real. You wouldn't know."
So the experiment is a qualified success. As it's not really a plausible regular policy, some advice from the pages of Peterkin's forthcoming tome, co-authored with US grooming journalist Nick Burns: The Bearded Gentleman: The Style Guide to Shaving Face. Grow it out for as long as possible to see what you've got to work with, and don't trim it too early. Brush down longer hair to cover the gaps – if that's an option for you, which it certainly isn't for me.
And, finally, work to your strengths, they recommend. All right, a full 'stache might be impossible. But what about sideburns? My own strengths, sad to say, don't seem like they will ever come into style. "Hairy necks aren't generally the way to go," Richard Scorer says gently. "That's just the way it is."
My voyage through facial hair has forced me to the only realistic conclusion: you can shave regularly, ignore the casually virile masses, and wait it out. After all, come next Movember super-smooth skin might be all the rage again.