The Return of Turkey's Mustaches

As Fashion Week approaches in Istanbul, reports of the demise of the mustache proved premature.

al-monitor 50-year-old Mevlut Dogan of Turkey poses with his 1.5-meter long mustache in front of the irrigation tunnel in the southeast Turkish town of Sanliurfa, Nov. 9, 1994. Photo by REUTERS/Fatih Saribas.

Topics covered

turkish democracy, reform, fashion, erdogan, democratization in turkey

Oct 3, 2013

With Istanbul’s Fashion Week just around the corner, the ladies are geared up to catch local expressions of global trends. Meanwhile, with men, one trend has not lost its popularity for several seasons now: the mustache. In fact, the mustache — much more a symbolic line of cultural division than a fashion accessory — has always been a controversial political symbol in Turkey. It is a story worth taking a look at.

In Turkish history, Ottoman men, as Sunni Muslims, usually had shaved heads or closely cropped hair. Particular rank or occupation determined the kind of turban or head covering. Only the “mature” male, a trait that was not always determined by age, but rather by power, could grow a beard. The practice of the Prophet Muhammad also recommended a certain length of beard. Later, secularization and Westernization in the Republican era discouraged the veil and the beard — and even banned them for state officials — because of religious connotations.

So, according to scholar Susan Aykut, in both the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, the regulation of hair practices was “a means of maintaining social order” and “significant in defining the allegiances of Turks to the state.” Both women’s headscarves and men’s facial hair have thus remained politically controversial.

In fact, the symbolism of a particular mustache style is powerful in Turkey, to an extent that the uninitiated foreigner would never guess. For example, an extreme nationalist mustache emerged in the 1970s, a style that reveals the upper lip clearly with drooping sides. According to some, it stands for milliyetçi, or “nationalist,” as the mustache’s shape resembles the letter M. In the same period, the ultranationalist group “Gray Wolves” even used mustache shape to identify their targets for killing: leftists and others associated with them like Alevis, who often wear mustaches dropped at the sides of the mouth. The left-wing Kurds usually prefer straight mustaches, similar to late Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s, covering the upper lip. A Sunni Muslim conservative religious mustache is clipped, does not cover the upper lip and does not droop down the sides (just like Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s). On the other hand, a clean-shaved face used to symbolize a connection to the military or no particular political affiliation.

Ideologies aside, the mustache has recently become a fashion trend. According to the French media, the mustache seems to be a cultish, enduring symbol very much in vogue in Turkey and the Middle East. Even in the West, the British Independent wrote “Caught by the fuzz: mustaches are back” about the “ominous tendency amongst the genuinely hip towards mustaches.” Aside from fashion, studies show the strong importance of facial hair in people's judgments of men's socio-sexual attributes. More facial hair symbolizes more masculinity, and “an intermediate level of beard is most attractive, while full-bearded men may be perceived as better fathers who could protect and invest in offspring.”

Many people are not aware of the health benefits of the mustache: decreased risk of cancer, fostered trust, increased attractiveness, decreased risk of facial injury and untimely death and even earned tax refunds in some countries. Heavy mustaches even serve as a “fear factor” for police in India.

So, the mustache has so much going on for it right now globally. In Turkey, this is even more true because of the ever-present nationalism (“The Turkish mustache is still the envy of the world," says one proud Turk in The Wall Street Journal), increased nostalgia for the Ottoman past and very powerful pop-culture trends. If Brad Pitt started a mustache trend with "Inglourious Basterds" in the West, young Turkish stars like Kenan İmirzalıoğlu and Burak Özçivit carried on the legacy of old-school stars like mustachioed Kadir Inanir and singing legend Ibrahim Tatlıses.

Furthermore, in the Middle East, the mustache also stands for power and honor. (For an interesting twist on politics and mustache, see “36 Mustaches (and a Few Beards) That Explain Why There’s No Peace in the Middle East.”) No wonder that men from the Arab world, where mustaches are seen to convey wisdom and maturity, flock to Istanbul for mustache implants. Creative names for their shape describe the abundant variety of styles from London to Istanbul.

Considering the enormous economic benefits of health tourism for mustache implants (100,000 people traveled to Turkey in 2012 just for plastic surgery), tapping on mustaches as a cool brand for both products and individuals seems economically smart as well. It is difficult to predict how long will this trend remain popular, though it certainly will never lose its cultural meaning, despite eventual decreasing numbers. According to polls, 77% of Turkish men had mustaches in 1993, 62.8% in 1997 and 34% in 2011.

In other words, while it was believed in 1997 that “mustaches are disappearing right and left from middle-class faces” due to “the trickle-down effect from the bourgeoisie,” things have changed. According to sociologist Nukhet Sirmen’s words at that time, the lack of mustache would perhaps become a “new Turkishness, a symbol of being integrated with the rest of the world.” Sirmen claimed that “Turkey's up-and-coming generation of businessmen” pioneered the clean-shaven trend in the 1980s.

Later on, in May 2010, columnist Soner Cagaptay wrote about “a small revolution” when the opposition Republican Peoples Party chose Kemal Kilicdaroglu, “a varoş man with whiskers.” Varoş, "suburb," signifies lower-middle and working-class neighborhoods. It is interesting that, in the words of Christa Salamandra, an associate professor of anthropology at City University of New York, "Traditionally, a luxurious mustache [in the Arab world] was a symbol of high social status" instead.

Today, despite lingering misconceptions of different worldviews among those who identify with opposing political parties in Turkey, the reality is much different. With the rise of the so-called Islamic bourgeoisie and a powerful Muslim middle class of conservative businessmen, wearing a particular style of hair is no longer a reliable symbol of a particular social class.

With the new democratization package, the media also reports a big surprise for men working in the public sector. From now on, men are allowed to grow mustaches, sideburns and beards, which before had to be shaved every day. While they will still have to wear a tie, men are now allowed to grow their hair, which was previously forbidden to cover ears. The stereotype of former Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as the national masculine ideal also included short hair. The new reforms are liberating, considering that all of this was previously clearly regulated in Article 5 of the law governing the clothes of state officials and related organizations.

Now that the new soap opera Fatih, in memory of Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, has started on Turkish TV, maybe the beard will become the “in” thing. It is also interesting to observe whether Movember, another globalization trend, will become popular in Turkey. "Through the power of the Mo," reads the charity's website, "vital funds and awareness are raised to combat prostate and testicular cancer and mental health challenges." 

Considering the global summary of funds raised, who is to say that Turkey could not beat all other countries? That would mean channeling "mustache nationalism," for once, toward a great cause.

Riada Ašimović Akyol is an independent analyst and writer. Her articles have been published by the Al Jazeera Center for Studies and Turkish daily Today’s Zaman. She is obtaining her doctorate in international relations at the Galatasaray University in Istanbul. On Twitter: @riadaaa

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