When Moustaches Were All the Raj

While recently reading Piers Brendon’s excellent new book The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, Izzy came across this fascinating digression on how the imperial British moustache largely originated in India:

Also reflecting the customs of [India] was the growth of “the Moustache movement.” Some British officers had begun to sport hair on their top lip during the Napoleonic Wars. They did so, largely, it seems, in dashing imitation of coxcombical Frenchmen, who took the Spanish view that an “an hombre de bigote” was a man of resolution, their whiskers evidently being “appurtenences of Terror.” The mode became imperative in India, where beards were deemed sacred but the moustache was a symbol of virility. . . . So in 1831 the 16th Lancers hailed with delight an order permitting them to wear moustaches. . . . In 1854 moustaches were made compulsory for European troops of the Company’s Bombay army and they were enthusiastically adopted elsewhere. . . . 

Moustaches were clipped and trimmed until they curved like sabers and bristled like bayonets. Their ends were waxed and given a soldierly erection. Imitating warriors, civilians too stiffened their upper lips: Frederich Engels mocked Anglo-Irish aristocrats with “enormous moustaches under colossal noses.” . . . For different reasons sailors and parsons eschewed the fashion but it was jealously guarded by the beau monde. Edwardian tuskers rebuked servants who aped the “fancy hairdressing” of their betters. Nothing would be permitted to devalue these military insignia, which achieved their apotheosis in the crossed scimitars of Lord Kitchener and gained iconic status in the famous Great War recruiting poster. So the moustache became the emblem of empire, roughly coterminous with the Raj but largely derived from it—much as the Romans derived the habit of wearing trousers from the barbarians.

The tradition of warriors choosing to be proudly hirsute lives on in the U.S. Special Forces, whose soldiers are the only American troops permitted to wear facial hair (and not just so they can blend in with locals abroad). It’s hard to quantify such things, but sometimes it appears that an outright majority of Navy SEALs wear mustaches. Of course, such facial hair is also a badge of honor, allowing the elite to stand out from the ordinary rank-and-file.

4 Responses to “When Moustaches Were All the Raj”

  1. Nick November 25, 2008 at 5:14 pm #

    Izzy,

    The moustache isn’t actually prohibited in any American service, though its dimensions are regulated. Today’s standards prohibit the moustache’s extension past the corners of the mouth and the top of the lip. These restrictions are what discourage many servicemenbers from adopting the moustache. The relaxed grooming standards enjoyed by special forces groups affect facial hair other than the moustache. Cheers!