It's said that the clothes make the man, but what about the mustache? Does it make the man, or does the man make it? Sort of a "chicken or the egg" question. Here we have three men who are forever linked with their facial hair, and the relationships between the man and the mustache are much more complex than one would think.
1. Hitler and the Toothbrush
Before the Blitz, before the Holocaust, before a patch of hair situated directly above the center of the lip became as much a symbol of evil as the devil's horns, the mustache worn by Hitler was called the Toothbrush. While Hitler and Charlie Chaplin are its most famous wearers, the Toothbrush has a long history behind it. The "˜stache first came to Europe at the end of the 19th century on Americans, who wore it as a response to Europeans' beloved primped and pimped Kaiser mustache. Elaborate and ornate was out, streamlined and efficient was in. In terms of personal grooming, the Toothbrush mustache was the assembly line, the steam engine, and the cotton gin all rolled into one, a revolutionary invention that would topple the old ways.
Shortly after its introduction, the Toothbrush was adopted by Hans Koeppen, a Prussian military lieutenant who was something of folk hero, and exploded into German culture. There are conflicting theories as to whether Hitler grew one then to latch onto the trend, or if he trimmed down his Kaiser during the World War I because it didn't fit under the gas mask he had to wear in the trenches. Either way, by the time he took lead of the Nazi Party, Hitler had grown attached to the Toothbrush and when one of his underlings advised he grow it out "at least to the end of the lips," he responded, "If it is not the fashion now, it will be later because I wear it."
Of course, the best laid plans of mustaches and men often go awry. After WWII, the toothbrush was taboo, a hairy scarlet letter, the stylistic equivalent of shouting anti-Semitic slurs in a crowded theater. Today, the mustache belongs to Chaplin and Hitler alone. To grow it to emulate the former, though, still incites all the rage and hatred the world shares for the latter. Hitler was certainly not the only one to wear the noble little hair square, but he made the mustache, burned it into our collective consciousness, and forever ruined it for the rest of us.
2. Ambrose Burnsides and the Sideburns
With Burnsides, the man and the hair (yes, technically it's not a mustache, so sue me) are so intertwined that it's hard to tell where one ends and one begins. Burnsides' sideburns are untouchable, the archetypal chops from which sprang everyone from Elvis to Luke Perry. He defined the style (the exact configuration of hair he wore, basically a full beard with a clean-shaven chin, is now known as friendly mutton chops), and, in turn, it defined him. Burnsides, you see, wasn't all that great at all the jobs he held. He was a mediocre businessman, did nothing of note in political office and despite some success on the battlefield, he was disliked by Abraham Lincoln and hated by the rest of the military brass. Those wonderful whiskers saved his legacy, though. Every man (and, unfortunately, woman) who lets a patch of hair grow in front of their ears owes him a great debt and the world will always remember him for at least one thing.
3. Fu Manchu and the"¦oh, you know
Today, we associate the mustache we two types of people: movie characters that are gross stereotypes of Asians, and guys from "˜70s rock bands (or contemporary bands that ape "˜70s rock bands). Whenever we see a member either group, we know the mustache and we know the man, even if we've never actually seen or read anything featuring him. The mustache is Fu Manchu for many people.
Here's the kicker though, Fu Manchu didn't have a mustache. In his first appearance, in the novel The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, he was described as "tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan." That sounds like the Fu we know, but when the hero gets his first look at the good doctor later on, he says, "I looked up to his face "“ his wicked, hairless face."
Turns out that Warner Oland, the first actor to portray Dr. Fu Manchu on film, had a mustache and kept it while he played the part (a la Cesar Romero in the Batman TV series). For the sake of continuity, Boris Karloff wore a fake mustache when he took the part. Fans dug it and the "˜stache became iconic. So, novelist Sax Rohmer's most famous character became forever known for something his creator never intended "“ a mustache that has become a cultural force in its own right.