RUStache2

The Sunday Rumpus Essay: On Wearing a Mustache

By

I am physically incapable of growing a mustache. But periodically for the past two months, I have been wearing a stick-on one in public, and I have been thrilled with the results.

:-{0

With the self-adhesive ’stache, I’ve been coordinating trousers, a button-up shirt—typically pink—a fedora hat, and a matching tie. The menswear is fun, but the real exhilaration comes from the thick black facial hair between my upper lip and nose: I feel very good; I feel very handsome; I feel that with the mustache I can manage people’s gazes and get them to look where I want them to.

:-{0

In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler argues that sex, gender, and sexuality—categories that are normally seen as “coherent” and “natural”—are all culturally constructed through the repetition of stylized acts in time.

I have worn my mustache in public a total of eleven times since the first on October 31, 2012.

:-{0

My reason for my being intermittently mustachioed is Weldon Kees. The Nebraska-born poet, painter, critic, and musician traced a brief, bright path through midcentury America before vanishing in 1955, an apparent suicide. As you can see in his fastidious and stagey photographs, his mustache is very dapper. Very bygone-Hollywood, putting one in mind of such long-dead but dashing stars of the silver screen as Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks, and Errol Flynn.

I wrote a book, Robinson Alone, about Weldon Kees, based on his life and work, as told through the actions of his own poetic quasi-alter ego, a debonair man-about-town known as Robinson.  At all the readings I’ve done in support of the project so far, I have been in drag, the better to put the character of Robinson across. Kees and Robinson were both meticulous dressers, hyper-aware of how they appeared, not only to others but also to themselves.

Kees’ mustache was not merely an accessory, but a part of his identity.

:-{0

When I wear a mustache, it feels like a mask; it conceals. But so too does the mustache feel like a lens, concentrating attention. Mostly the mustache hides, but so too does it direct: do not think of me as a young woman in the year 2012, but as a dandy-ish man in the 1940s and 50s, fetching enough to have been a matinee idol, but who chose instead to be a poet.

:-{0

The set of false mustaches I ordered online was called the “36-pack Fake Novelty Mustache Joke Kit” and the tagline said: “Perfect for any party, joke, gag gift or costume.”

But the thing is: I am not joking. At least not exclusively.

:-{0

 A mustache is a choice and a mustache is a gesture.

:-{0

The majority of men in America choose not to have mustaches. That is their decision, and it is usually a two-stage one. Because of the way the face is structured—what with that mouth in it—and because, I am told, it is harder to shave the upper lip (the skin is looser), it’s a separate decision from opting not to have a beard.

I do not understand this decision. If I were a man and could grow one, I would wear it all the time. I would not be kidding. My mustache would be lustrous, earnest, and sincere.

:-{0

The majority of women in America who can grow mustaches also choose not to do so. I can understand this decision a little bit more—social coercion—but it depresses me.

:-{0

Physiologically, the appearance of a mustache—or the ability to grow one, whether it is exercised or not—speaks to gender roles, and how to fulfill or not to fulfill them. In males, a mustache suggests a degree of agency not previously possessed: look, I am a man, and a sexually maturing or mature one at that. In women, the appearance of a mustache—as is the case with most female facial and body hair—marks the fraught onset of yet another chance to make oneself “desirable,” which is to say, in most cases, to depilate. Frida Kahlo and JD Samson aside, the field of women with proudly sported facial hair is a sparse one.

:-{0

There is a certain erotics of the mustache. It has dirty nicknames, descriptive, suggestive.  And of course it has its persistent association with sleazy pornography.

:-{0

But so too does the mustache possess a power and a majesty. A mustache can be sad. It can suggest something lost, never to be regained: swashbuckling pirates. The Civil War. The Old West. Old Hollywood. Your dad in the 70s.

:-{0

Except for a mercifully brief period in the mid-1980s, when the Air Force made him shave it off so he could have his photo taken for an ID, my father has never not had facial hair between his top lip and nostrils.

:-{0

Every single one of my maternal uncles—my mother’s sisters’ husbands—has a mustache, all very serious, all slightly different: Uncle Bill, Uncle Chuck, and Uncle Norm.

:-{0

To wear a mustache is to travel through time, and to travel through, too, to another identity.

:-{0

Mustaches possess both comedy and pathos.

At first, when I put on one of my mustaches in front of an audience, it reads as funny. It is a joke; we all laugh. That’s the intent. That’s drag, to an extent: a parody, an exaggeration, a nod to a huge goofy signifier of the sex the performer is not.

But after the initial impact of my facial hair application has worn off, it becomes less comic; the mustache shades into an unexpected gravitas.

When I wear Kees’ mustache, I feel and think about embodiment and potential and the always-imperfect effort of imagining yourself not merely into someone else’s shoes but into their whole way of seeing and being.

:-{0

My dad’s ever-present ’stache is why I have always loved and been fascinated by mustaches.

Yet early on I was given to understand that I, as a girl, would never have the option or pleasure of sporting one myself.

:-{0

But then, when I was five or six years old, came Maria.

A character on Sesame Street played by Sonia Manzano, Maria did a series of recurring skits in which she paid homage to Charlie Chaplin, dressed to resemble his most iconic character, the Tramp. In baggy pants, a bowler, and a too-tight coat, Maria carried a cane, wore outsized shoes, and most importantly sported a small and bushy black toothbrush mustache.

I had no idea who Charlie Chaplin was. I just appreciated the silent physical comedy of the acting—the simple scenarios and the communication with wordless gestures—and above all the fact that she was a conventionally, femininely pretty woman dressed in male clothing and wearing a mustache. She looked beautiful. She looked consistently more beautiful than the women she acted opposite in these sketches, no offense to the other actresses.

I don’t know that this was the lesson that the Children’s Television Workshop sought to impart, but Maria taught me that one day, if I wanted to, I too could wear a mustache.

:-{0

Like many things, a mustache is a performance, but it is also a truth.

Masculine or feminine, a mustache suggests a fluidity and a harmony and a possibility for transition. Deciding to wear a mustache—whether it’s just for a night, as I do, or for the majority of your natural life, like my dad—can be a chance at self-transformation.

:-{0

A mustache does not have to be “real” to have a real effect.

Charlie Chaplin’s mustache was almost always artificial, as was Groucho Marx’s.

:-{0

At the most recent occasion when I wore a mustache, a reading in Chicago, the host, a man, asked if I had a spare that he could wear, too, because he couldn’t really grow a decent one of his own. I gave him one. Afterward, one of my female co-readers came up to me and showed me hers, carefully bleached into oblivion.

Some of us went to a bar near the bookstore. I left my mustache on because it felt right. No one said anything to my face, but when I went to get another drink, a guy came up to my friend Kristi and asked, “Hey, what’s with the chick in the mustache?” and Kristi explained, and he said, “Cool.”

Logan Square, where we were, is a mustache-friendly zone. But we should all be able to wear mustaches whenever and wherever and however we want to.

:-{0

The product description of the set of false mustaches I ordered online encourages its purchasers to “Be unique, be funny with our self-adhesive fake mustache set.”

Be that. Be that mustached. Be that clean-shaven. Be that as a man. Be that as a woman. Be that, be that all the time.

 


Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press and the author, most recently, of the novel in poems Robinson Alone and the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs. Find out more about her at kathleenrooney.com. More from this author →