The mustache stumbles on the comeback trail

Can James Franco bring back the mustache?
Can James Franco bring back the mustache? Associated Press

When James Franco was photographed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art & Film gala this month with a shaved head and Ned Flanders mustache, Twitter users were not kind.

“All I want for Christmas is for @JamesFrancoTV to have hair again & shave his stupid mustache,” one user wrote.

“James Franco’s mustache looks like he wants it to find another apartment but he can’t work up the guts to kick it out,” another added.

“You’re starting to look just like Cheech from Cheech and Chong,” a third wrote.

The backlash was surprising given that Franco was just the latest in a string of scruff-chic stars, including Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper and Michael Cera, who have tried to revive the mustache as a not-entirely-ironic fashion statement. And not always for Movember, the annual awareness campaign that encourages men to grow lip fuzz in November to promote male health.

But even for the anointed, the mustache is sometimes met with wisecracks that inevitably invoke 1970s pornographic-film stars or Ron Burgundy of “Anchorman” fame.

The conclusion seems inescapable: If you are waiting for mustaches to make a comeback, well, you may have to keep waiting.

“Most guys can’t afford to walk around with that extra bit of sleaze on their faces,” said Jon Wilde, an articles editor for GQ who has tracked the trend. “A mustache is sleazy, it’s showy, it’s louche – no way around it. It has hints of the ‘70s and old porn.”

His is not an isolated opinion.

Ever since the beard made a roaring comeback in the late aughts, style watchers have been waiting for the mustache to return. Like the beard, the mustache was a symbol of virility throughout the centuries but had fallen into disfavor. It seemed overdue.

Unlike the beard, however, the mustache has serious baggage. It has arguably functioned as little more than a visual punch line for some 35 years, ever since the male population of the United States ceded that style turf en masse to Burt Reynolds. In the ensuing years, the mustache may have set a fashion record for sustained “outness.”

The problem, it seems, is not just that the mustache became unfashionable. “Unfashionable” is a temporary state, one that comes with an inevitable comeback seemingly baked in (think: faded jeans, puffy coats and, yes, beards). The mustache, rather, became uncool. As we have seen with bell-bottoms for men, in-line skates and ethnic humor, “uncool” may be a permanent state.

“Post-1970s, once the fashion for mustaches among gays and police officers receded, and Walter Cronkite retired, they became uncool for pretty much everyone,” said Kurt Andersen, the writer and public radio host, who has lately compiled a satirical Pinterest page containing headshots of chief executives who favor comically out-of-fashion soup strainers. “The Ron Swanson character on ‘Parks and Recreation' is a good contemporary example of the mustache-as-joke.”

This is not to say the mustache is not enjoying its own outsider-chic moment of late.

In fashion, the Ford Models cover boy Jarrod Scott, for one, took the so-out-it’s-in mustache to new heights by strutting down the runway in Paris for Chanel in March wearing a veritable Datsun 240Z of ’70s insouciance on his upper lip.

In sports, Blake Griffin and other members of the Los Angeles Clippers recently raised eyebrows by hitting the hardwood wearing Movember mustaches. “I think we all look like cops,” the center DeAndre Jordan said on Fox Sports West. “Blake reminds me of the dude from ‘Reno 911!'”

Meanwhile, among “Portlandia” types, the retro-ironic mustache motif remains a go-to design element. Pinterest and Etsy are brimming with mustache-adorned cookie molds, knit ski masks and ice cube trays, not to mention shots of “fingerstache” tattoos on the index finger, to be placed under the nose for ready-made yuks.

Even big data suggests that the tide may be turning for this unloved facial accessory. Just in time for Movember, Yahoo searches involving the term “mustache” are outpacing beard-related searches 5 to 1 in the last month, a company spokeswoman said.

But does any of this mean that regular guys may soon try to jump on the bandwagon?

“Guys like Gosling and Pitt and Franco are wearing the mustache because it’s a grooming power move that gives a guy an iconoclast, outsider vibe in buffed-and-polished Hollywood,” said Wilde. “As for why they can pull it off, though, the answer’s simple: They’re all insanely handsome.”