Movember: Stand up for the Walrus, Stromboli and Pencil, last of a dying breed

As men nationwide sprout a moustache for charity this month, Tim Lott says that without a good cause, such growth is doomed

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The Independent Online

Over the next few weeks, you are liable to witness a disturbing spectacle – that of otherwise mentally healthy young men sporting an outcrop of unsightly furze on their upper lip.

It would be an insult to the proud history of male upper-lip facial hair to describe these furry artefacts as "moustaches". They will for the most part be apologetic, ironic or nostalgic. Being grown as they are for charity – via the Movember movement to raise awareness of prostate and testicular cancer – rather than spontaneously out of the simple wish to celebrate the joy of pogomany, they are, quite unapologetically, a joke.

The Imperial, the Walrus, the Stromboli, the Handlebar, the Horseshoe, the Mustachio, the Nosebeard, the Fantastico, the Pencil – all the design classics of the world of moustaches – I suspect will be missing from this extended exercise in well-meaning public theatre. An effort will doubtless be made, but not much of one. When you pee into the wind of history, you end up with an unattractively soiled face.

How different things were when I was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then, when so many of us signed up proudly for the latest historic chapter of the great, age-old human project of moustache-growing, we had no hope of external gain or profit, whether for a charity or no. We just wanted a fine, virile, serviceable moustache.

In those days, of course, there were real extant role models for a young man on the cusp of manhood. Frank Zappa, Cheech and Chong, David Crosby and, of course, Yosemite Sam from Bugs Bunny. It's hard to believe now but such moustaches – known commonly and slightly inaccurately as Zapata moustaches (since the Mexican revolutionary Emile Zapata himself cultivated something much less limp-looking) – were authentically cool.

I confess that my moustache, like many of my contemporaries, was not a total success. I was hampered by my being fair-haired, and the blond moustache, with the possible exception of Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, doesn't really work at any level. I kept it for a year, as I recall, a time during which I was inexplicably free of female company. But my fantasy of being a free riding American counter cultural cowboy – complete with yoked cowboy shirt from the Emperor of Wyoming in Notting Hill Gate and a pair of Lee Riders – more than compensated for my sexual frustration (which I suspect would have been effortlessly maintained anyway).

If my moustache was a mistake – and I maintain that it was a bold if never-to-be-repeated experiment – then I least I shared that mistake with a whole generation. This would include a large part of the Liverpool football team including Bruce Grobelaar, Graham Souness and Ian Rush. But they were just a small part of that particular hairy tsunami. Who can forget the bold, groomed moustache of Peter Sarstedt (where did you go to my lovely?), Peter Wyngarde (this was, of course, before the tash went gay), Mark Spitz, John Newcombe and Magnum PI?

Sadly, it was a short-lived, and as it turned out, final flowering. Two cultural influences somehow shattered that proud template: celebrity porn stars and the Village People. Once male gigolos like John Holmes and Ron Jeremy became famous for their prodigious growth, and then the gay community appropriated the moustache for their own damnably ironic aesthetic purposes, the moustache for hetero men began to rapidly die out. The last fully authenticated sighting of successful heterosexual moustache it is acknowledged by historians, belonged to Prince around Sign 'O' the Times in 1987. After that, only emptiness – a hairless void.

Yes, there were a few moments at the end of that decade when the moustache made a feeble attempt to muster a rearguard action against the forces of redundancy and irony. Geoff Hoon and Peter Mandelson sported sad little taches to bolster their self-esteem, but more after the style and aspiration of Julius Streicher than the noble lip trophy of, say, Burt Reynolds. It was like the appearance of Tony Blair in a red bandanna – the final nail in the cultural coffin.

It's true there have recently been more serious attempts to revive the form. Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers, tried it a few seasons ago, but it lasted no more than a matter of months. Matt Damon tries again in Steven Soderbergh's The Informant, but to no avail. Lameness beckoned and scared them away. It seemed that the moustaches are effectively wearing them rather than the other way round.

The moustache is, like the bell-bottom and the boiler suit for men, effectively dead, as dead as the trilby. The meaning of the modern moustache is effectively summed up by its most visible living supporters – President Assad of Syria, Robert Mugabe (who sports a rare philtrum, covering no more than his central nasal channel), Borat, Ned Flanders from The Simpsons and Dennis the Menace's dad in The Beano.

What ever happened to this proud and purely male accessory to fashion and self-expression? The truth is, the moustache has always had a tough time justifying itself against the forces of hairlessness, the full beard and general philistinism. Although there does exist a picture of a Iranian warrior with a clearly defined moustache stretching back to the third century BC, and there are statues of the Buddha with a moustache, moustache-friendly eras are surprisingly rare.

The Greeks and the Romans, for instance, were big beard fans – Socrates, Aristotle and Plato all were well bearded up – but had no time for the humble tache. Other than a brief appearance by Genghis Khan in AD1200, beards had the upper hand, or lip, until the golden age of the moustache, the 19th century.

The arrival of the moustache in England and America was essentially rebellion against those cheese- eating surrender monkeys the French, who got themselves wigged up and cosmeticised themselves in a typically Gallic, deeply effeminate way. Real men of the 19th century, under the growing Anglo/Germanic inspiration (a British empire and unified German Reich) discarded the periwig and instead grew facial hair. Beards, yes, but also proud, creative and sometimes baroque moustaches.

This was the era of the great moustache. Mark Twain, Lord Kitchener, Otto von Bismarck, Friedrich Nietzsche, Wyatt Earp, Rudyard Kipling – the list goes on and on. The moustache continued well into the 20th century as a mark of maturity, a symbol of masculinity, a rite of passage. The thickness of a man's moustache denoted military rank and experience. New recruits had insubstantial whiskers, the higher ranks could show off noble face hair. That was all brought to an end sometimes around the 1930s with those historic walking – or marching – disasters for the moustache, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. It was it that point that facial hair became politicised.

In a sense, of course, the toothbrush moustache – favoured not only by Hitler, but monsters of equal stature such as Streicher and Heinrich Himmler – was already political. It was a neat, uniform, low-maintenance style that echoed the standardisation and uniformity brought on by industrialisation, in contrast to the elaborate 19th-century aristocratic moustache. It was a kind of democratic Ikea of facial hair.

The toothbrush moustache might have survived had it not been for Hitler's quirky fashion sense. Certainly, it was felt the moustache was an important part of his appeal and as such, a sensitive subject. In 1942, for instance, Vidkun Quisling, the premier of Norway, forbade Norwegian actors from wearing a moustache. At another point during the war, officers of the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, wanted to inject oestrogen into Hitler's food – a female hormone that would render Hitler weepy, make him grow breasts, and, crucially, destroy his moustache.

The plan was never put into effect, and who knows what effect it might have had on the long-term fate of moustaches, or for that matter, the war, had it succeeded. But, combined with the other great mass murderer, Joseph Stalin's full-on lip-hugger, it was the first chime of the death knell for the moustache. Yes, it continued in an enfeebled form through the 1950s and early 1960s but it had lost its glory and its panache. Moustache wearers were cads (Terry-Thomas), idiots (Jimmy Edwards), the spiv (Joe Walker in Dad's Army) or any generic nonentity struggling with low status.

It turned out that the 1970s were the dying thrash of a long, proud tradition. There is nowhere, really, left for the moustache to go. The ironic moustache, in the guise of John Waters, and the retro fashion school moustache – essentially an antique worn on the face – will sputter along, but the great days are over. They are rare flora (or fauna) disappearing in the ecosystem of competing facial decoration.

Goatees, full beards, sideburns, five o'clock shadows – they're all still thriving. But no one wants the poor old tache. As the late Paula Yates memorably put it: "Why grow a moustache when you can just tattoo the words 'I am a prick' across your upper lip?" A woman not much given to uttering imperishable truths, she certainly hit the nail on the head with that one.