To Mustache or Not To Mustache

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The physical attributes of historical romance heroes bear more similarity to male beauty standards of not only the decades in which they were written, but the author’s personal preferences. Then we have the covers, where the male models are sculpted, tanned, and chiseled–and manscaped within an inch of their lives. I recall seeing a few covers where the male model had chest hair, but I’ve never seen one with hair under their armpits or on their arms!

Readers also bring their own preferences to the table, which is possibly why the Regency setting is so popular: no facial hair, no heels, powder, and velvet, or anything else that *gasp* threatens to strip the hero of his masculinity (this is an issue for another day!). It’s also probably why publishers say blonde and red-haired men on covers don’t sell. Nevertheless, there’s been a small backlash, so to speak, against the ubiquitous of the Regency in the historical romance genre, and a few authors have braved their way into the Victorian era. Yay!, except for the fact that these 1840s, 1860s, 1880s heroes lack the key component to superb Victorian masculinity: the mustache (and beard).

From Unlacing the Victorians

There’s an old saying that “kissing a man without a mustache is like eating an egg without salt,” and in Anne Sebba’s biography of Jennie Jerome, there are hints that a sign of male virility was attached to the *ahem* size of his mustache. This thread on Paradox Interactive also assigns political meaning to the existence of facial hair (e.g.,”the typical bushy Marx-esque beard tended to be associated with political radicalism prior to the mid-century”; “growing a moustache and large sideburns was a fad of the pro-war with Russia people pre-Crimea. They also wore outlandishly coloured shirts with odd patterns.”). According to the Daily Mail, the mustache rose in status with the Empire–its crown jewel India in particular, since the highest and warrior castes sported fierce facial hair, and to assert themselves as the superior race, British gentlemen grew mustaches and beards just as fierce. “By the 1890s, the moustache was the mark of every successful dandy. As far away as Hong Kong, it was said to be social death for a man to forget to curl the ends of his moustache. At home, Edwardian gentlemen rebuked servants who aped the ‘fancy hairdressing’ of their betters.” To cement this source of social preeminence in stone, the Queen/King’s Army regulations made it compulsory for officers in the British army to grow a mustache between 1860-1916.

From Today I Found Out:

Command No. 1,695 of the King’s Regulations read:
The hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip…

“Although the act of shaving one’s upper lip was trivial in itself, it was considered a breach of discipline. If a soldier were to do this, he faced disciplinary action by his commanding officer which could include imprisonment, an especially unsavory prospect in the Victorian era.”

Archive_Officer_12th_Lancers

“Poignantly, that edict was revoked in October 1916, because the new recruits were so young that some could not rustle up more than a thin, mousey streak.” — The Telegraph

Knowing this, I chose to give my hero a mustache despite its seeming unpopularity within the romance genre. For the most part, I did not have a fixed image of Huw Towyn (hero of Mine Is The Night) until being wowed by Matthew Goode’s performance in Dancing on The Edge. It was truly a light bulb moment, and the funniest part is that I had this image of Matthew Goode in WWI uniform and drove myself crazy wondering where it came from until I remembered that he was in Birdsong! Light bulb moment followed by a dim bulb.

Ignore the following picture if you’re one of those readers who hates authors fixing their characters to real people 😉

matthew goode in birdsong

 

So what do you think? Should more Victorian heroes have mustaches and beards? If you read a romance where the hero was described as having a mustache, would you recoil in disgust? What does the popularity of buffed and polished romances heroes–in spite of our own real life preferences, or even the physical appearance of our past or present SOs–say about us? (sorry, sorry, I know I said it was a topic for another day…but I couldn’t resist!)

Author: Evangeline Holland

Evangeline is a public historian who brings her academic skills to fiction, in order to fill in the gaps in the historical record. Her love for history permeates just about everything she does, going so far as to "suffer" for this love--as the bruises and stuck fingers from fencing and sewing costumes to understand life in the past firsthand can attest.

14 thoughts on “To Mustache or Not To Mustache”

  1. Or is it “moustache”? (Former French teacher here). Actually, I like blond and red-headed heroes. But that may explain why I can’t find good Regency stock photos of blond or redheaded heroes!

    I don’t mind moustaches, but beards, yuck! And my heroes don’t have facial hair either, but then, I write Regencies.

    Great post, Evangeline!

    1. Oui!

      I like blonds and red-heads too, and though there are some around you won’t find them on the covers. And you’re right–it is hard to find good stock! Hot Damn, Studio Smexy, etc must rectify this immediately!

      Lol, no beards? Not even the scruffy kind seen on Joe Manganiello?

  2. I prefer for the heroes to fit in with their times. Sure, there are always exceptions to the fashion norm, for multiple reasons, so while not every Victorian/Edwardian hero, for example, would wear facial hair, it’s more likely that they would than would not, and heroines of their time would find that perfectly fine. Ditto with Tudor age, Vikings, etc.

    Echoing the need for blonds and redheads. I even have a Georgian hero in one WIP who most naturally would keep a shaved head to make wigs fit properly, but would *that,* while accurate for his era, not fly with a modern reader? It’s a fine line to tread, between historical versimilitude and contemporary standard.

  3. Funny that you should be blogging about this subject, as I’ve been pondering it this week! My current project is set in the French army in WWI, where they certainly liked their mustaches. My hero’s even plays a sort of role itself, as he uses it to hide behind. But it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of a literary hero off the top of my head who very clearly has facial hair. Secondary characters, sure. It’s often a part of their characterization. But the hero/love interest? Not usually!

    I suppose I’ve never really noticed this before as a reader because my husband has both beard and mustache. For me, that’s what a hero looks like.

    Is it best to be vague in writing? Not to mention either the presence or absence of facial hair? Allow the reader to imagine the character as either clean shaven or not, depending on personal taste or dedication to accuracy?

    1. Ah, yes, the French! The forum I linked to mentioned another reason for British adoption of mustaches: their admiration for the fearsome facial hair grown by the French during the Crimean War.
      I too found it difficult to think of a hero with facial hair (a Twitter convo turned up two–Mick in Judith Ivory’s The Proposition and Sebastian in Lydia Joyce’s The Music of the Night), and now the hero in your WIP. 😉 But how intriguing that mustaches tend to be associated with funny side-kicks.
      Your visualization of your husband is why I find it so fascinating that beards and mustaches are so rare in romantic fiction–do other readers picture their husbands/SOs, or do they enjoy relaxing with a book featuring a man who might not be their type?
      I prefaced that picture of Matthew Goode precisely because some readers like to visualize the character in their head how they like, and not how the author tells them to visualize them. There is probably more leeway for writing slightly vague descriptions outside of the romance genre, which is quite focused on the physical description of love and romantic relations.

      1. Interesting question, about how readers prefer to visualize heroes. And I do agree that, in romances especially, physical description is more difficult to escape. I’ll be honest, even when a physical description is present, I tend to skim over it and visualize the hero as I see fit. I don’t like to be told who I should be falling in love with on the pages!

  4. Personally, I don’t go for the hero with a moustache alone, but might okay one with a close trimmed naval type beard too. We do tread a curious line between historical accuracy and what the contemporary reader likes/enjoys. Enjoyed your post, thank you. Anne

  5. Interesting topic! I like facial hair (within reason) and it bothers me that there is no mention of mustaches or beards in any Victorian I have read. I am writing early Victorian and was wondering about facial hair. Thanks for writing about this!

    1. I chalk this up to romance readers having a set image of what an attractive hero should look like–so it’s up to talented writers to sell a Georgian era hero who wears red heels, or a Victorian hero with a beard and mustache, as sexy. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  6. I’d much rather have a hero with a mustache or clean-shaven than put up with the perpetual five o’clock shadow that so many men now sport. That’s almost as bad as a soul patch (the little bit of growth directly under the lower lip).

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