The 'stache is back

It's fuzzy! It's scuzzy! And it's adorning upper lips all over L.A.

Published April 10, 2003 5:43PM (EDT)

Last month, a 34-year-old Los Angeles photographer named Dan Monick was invited to a mustache birthday party that a buddy of his was throwing for two girlfriends. The invite showed a picture of the two women, altered in Photoshop to make them look like Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dali. Monick, who has a real 'stache, went to the gathering and found himself in mustache heaven: fake fuzz, real fuzz, on men and women alike.

It's not a party until the cops show up, and this turned out to be a real blowout. "The police were chasing some dude who ran into the party and ran out the back door," explains Monick. "It's like 3 in the morning on Sunset Boulevard and the cops, all of whom have mustaches, come running into a mustache party."

The police promptly ticketed some of the partygoers who were drinking in front of the house. So much for hirsute solidarity.

It' s "Magnum P.I." all over again. Just flip on MTV: The Foo Fighters' frontman, Dave Grohl, has a goatee mustache hybrid, drummer Taylor Hawkins has the real deal (upper lip only). Doctor Matt Destruction of the Hives sports a 'stache, and so does funky rapper Har Mar Superstar. But Angelenos aren't growing facial hair just to mimic their favorite rock stars. No, L.A. is host to the mustache revival because everyone here likes to play a role: daddy, cop, stud, lounge singer, dictator and, lest we forget, porn star.

Flash-forward: It's Tuesday night at the Three of Clubs, an amber-lit dive bar on Santa Monica Boulevard and Vine. It's unusually crowded for a weeknight. The main draw: Tattooed Hollywood scenester Cali Dewitt is tending bar. Not only is he serving drinks, he's serving them while wearing an oversize baseball cap and sporting a new, floppy mustache. He might blend in just fine over at the Hooters in Fayetteville, Ark., but in Hollywood, he's getting all sorts of attention. And not just because he's Hollywood gorgeous. Roars can be heard from regulars, apparently seeing his new look for the first time. "Why? Why?" asks one brunette incredulously. Dewitt explains that he's grooming himself in preparation to accompany his brother's band on tour. His plan, he says, is to be the "belle of the bus." This isn't a retro trend for him. And he's not doing it to pick up guys. Dewitt is straight -- he just thinks 'staches are "cool."

Traditionally, it's been gay men who appropriate (and usually improve) hetero fashion. But in L.A., it's always been hard to tell gay from straight; now mustaches are blurring the lines even more. Now that the "sensitive New Age guy" period is over, straight men are rediscovering their "masculinity" through the mustache. When viewed as part of a costume, it's just over-the-top enough to offer a couched and disassociated peek into all aspects of manhood.

Just hours away from L.A., at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, nine mustached men in their late 20s meet up for an annual event they call Mustacho Basho. Once a year, it's déjà Village People. The styles range from "Fu Manchu" and "softball player" to, yes, "Hitler." (The Saddam look does not seem to have taken off.) The accompanying outfits are equally diverse. One guy, working a '70s hustler look, wears tight denim shorts and a green vest sans shirt. Another brings class to his 'stache with dress pants, shirt and ascot.

"Some of my friends go over the top with their outfits to make sure everyone knows that the mustache is not serious," says 29-year-old political consultant Gordon Hintz. He's the guy in the white suit with the eye patch whose mustache credo is: "Blending in while looking ridiculous is a real art."

And real art takes time and patience. Every year since the summer of 1994, Hintz, a Wisconsin native who lives in L.A., and a bunch of his friends spend eight weeks growing out their 5 o'clock shadow in preparation for the weekend when they will artistically prune their facial hair into mustaches.

"I wish I had the guts to go with a mustache for longer," sighs Hintz, who shaves his facial hair as soon as the weekend is over.

Hintz would have likely been horrified by the party at which Monick's friends were allowed to wear fake facial hair. For Hintz and his buddies, the thrill of the 'stache is partly about solidarity, and partly about commitment to real growth. But Jeff Hartline, the 34-year-old contractor and host of that party, was just trying to be inclusive. He takes his own mustache very seriously. "I wanted to be a fireman when I was growing up," he explains. "Firemen, policemen -- guys in the '70s who were male role models to my generation -- all had mustaches." Sadly, Hartline, a brunet, was unable to properly grow his own 'stache. "It didn't work," he says sadly. "It grew out blond."

Homegrown or store-bought, sporting a 'stache often means that men like Hartline, Monick and Hintz are mistaken for gay -- which they don't mind, because it turns out chicks dig mustaches. Hintz swears that at the last Mustacho Basho, women were swarming all over him on the dance floor, even though he was dressed as a scoutmaster. (The costume also gave Hintz a chance to explore a more burning social question: As he puts it, "Why does a group that excludes homosexuals choose to dress in such unmanly uniforms?")

Dan Monick's girlfriend, 32-year-old freelance art buyer Hillary Bartos, thinks her man's mustache is at once "gross" and oddly attractive. She wasn't crazy about Monick's new look at first, but she got used to it.

"It grew on me," she says -- with irony, one hopes. "I totally found it sexy after a while. He reminded me of a porn director -- in a good way."

"It's awesome because you just don't give a fuck," says Monick. "I looked and felt totally sleazy. It made people uncomfortable for some reason." But he managed to get past people's intense scrutiny and says that the whole experience empowered him.

Monick was wearing a mustache before this new wave really swept L.A. Part of the fun was that, back then, he was one of the few guys in town working the look. All of that came crashing to a halt when one day he found himself on the Chung King Road (Chinatown's famous gallery strip) confronted by dozens of young mustached men. Apparently they were part of a March of Dimes benefit: grow a moustache, collect a donation.

That's when Monick finally decided it was time to shave.

By Shana Ting Lipton

Shana Ting Lipton is a writer in Los Angeles.

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