Cult of moustache

The moustache is a part of men’s facial hair that grows between the nose and the mouth. It is a secondary sex characteristic that also has an aesthetic function. In certain social groups, it is an identity creating power and a fashion phenomenon, a symbol that changes during history. They have a different role in the animal world: antennas and olfactory organs that help night animals, mainly felines and other small mammals. In the case of fishes (including catfish and carp) the moustache-like dermal pendants also serve sensing and orientation. You can even find birds with whiskers.

Törzsök János üzletvezető portréja, Győr, 1912 - Magyar Kereskedelmi és Vendéglátóipari Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

A moustache can be cut and trimmed in many ways and it usually holds its form. As of the 15th century, it was typical among the commons. During the 18th century, it was forbidden temporarily due to Germanization, thus men had to epilate or shave their moustaches otherwise they risked imprisonment.  During the 19th century, the Hungarian moustache fashion formed according to western and eastern, military and nobiliary influences. The elderly preferred the thin hanging ‘catfish’ moustache (‘konya’). The ‘pörge’ or pointed moustache was also fashionable. To ‘tame’ this kind of hair, they needed tallow, and its ends were twirled by a reel or a string to achieve the suitable sharpness. The straight-cut moustache appeared around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, first among the bourgeoisie and later among rural people.

Ottó Herman (1835-1914), the famous Hungarian naturalist, ethnographer, archaeologist and politician – ‘the last Hungarian polymath’ – published his essay ‘The Hungarian moustache’ in the periodical Magyar Nyelv in 1906. The ethnographer describes the Hungarian moustache types, 26 altogether, with illustrations. He also mentions that Hungarian people make a cult around their moustaches. He emphasizes that the style of the facial hair depends on a person’s profession or even nationality. A man’s age also has an influence on it, for example when the strengthening hairs fuzz over the boyish feather, or the well-groomed moustaches of young men (‘nyalka’) and each has its traditional name.

Kovács László: Szoció, Dohányzó bajszos férfi (2004) - Viski Károly Múzeum, © Fizetős hozzáférés

Ottó Herman often likens the forms of moustaches to the cattle-horns. ‘Csákó’ had a typically symmetrical form, unlike ‘kajla’ that had asymmetrical form: with one side turning up and the other down. This had several reasons. One is that the person could twirl the right side of the moustache with his free right hand, while the left side drooped as it was not twirled. The other reason is when a man always sleeps on the same side and the pillow presses down that side of the moustache.

A folk idiom describes the characteristics of the ‘thick moustache’: ‘as if he had swallowed a crow and only its wings were left outside’. According to Ottó Herman, the most famous wearer of this type is the poet János Arany. ‘Csurgó’ is very similar to the thick one, but it is drooping, so liquids can weep off after drinking. Ferenc Deák wore this kind of facial hair. The ‘rugged moustache’ is also a strong and dominant wear with ‘almost each hair curving differently and it is always tousled‘; Mihály Munkácsy preferred it among others.

Satrál Andor: Férfi portré (1900) - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

The toothbrush or Hitler moustache spread in Hungary between the two world wars. Its origins go back to the 19th century: starting from the USA it became widespread in Europe, but after the WW II it lost popularity quickly, due to its most infamous wearer and to the Nazism. The other famous fan of the brush moustache was Charlie Chaplin. This typical facial hair was his style ‘brand’, but it also functioned as a tool for underlining countenances and humour in his silent films.

One of the most famous moustaches of the 20th century is that of Salvador Dalí. The surrealistic painter whiz had long thin extravagant whiskers poking upwards. It is almost a Dadaist artwork itself. Albert Einstein is also known for his characteristic bushy hair and moustache style, besides being one of the biggest geniuses of the century. His face became the symbol of the eccentric genius. Freddie Mercury is one of the most famous moustached personalities of the century as well. The British rock icon held to his brand hairs, despite that unsatisfied fans threw razors at him during concerts – as rumours said. The over-thirty generation recalls Tom Selleck, the detective series of Magnum and his legendary moustache with some nostalgic feeling. It is a special imprint of the popular culture of the ‘80s.

Tímár Rózsi: Idősebb férfi arcképe - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

The moustache is a frequent symbol in art as well. Besides the Hungarian classics, essays and articles, you can also remember Nóra Lakos’s documentary ‘Hungarian Moustache’ (Magyar bajusz – 2012) or Emmanuel Carrère’s film drama ‘The Moustache’ (La Moustache – 2005). In the Hungarian language there are a lot of idioms and proverbs that refer to it symbolically.

Besides the art and the fashion, this symbol was also exploited by a good case called the Movember movement: growing a moustache is used for calling the attention to the importance of men’s health and the prevention of prostatic cancer. The moustache icon or emoji has grown into a separate cultural factor. Moreover, Mr Moustache ‘employed’ by the Centre for Budapest Transport has his own Facebook fan site. Just like in János Arany’s era, whiskers still give an imprint of the epoch, provide men with identity and mean beauty with symbolic power.


Translated by Zita Aknai


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