Mustache Law: A Historical Primer for Learned Gentlemen

Funny, Bizarre, NakedLaw

Around this time every year, you might notice generally clean-shaven men of your acquaintance suddenly start sprouting facial hair. They haven’t joined a cult; instead they are participating in Movember, a yearly campaign to raise both research funds for and awareness of prostate and other cancers that affect men.  In November 2010, more than 440,000 men registered with the campaign, raising over $80 million.

As even corporations get in on the act,  the “Mo Bros” of Movember generally get a pass on violating any institutional facial-hair bans — as long as they shave come December 1. Other men dedicated to the more permanent pursuit of facial hair haven’t been so lucky. Read on for extreme examples of mustache discrimination.

Are there any unauthorized mustaches in your luggage?

One case of mustache discrimination went all the way to the Supreme Court — of India. Joynath Victor De was “compulsorily retired” from his position with Indian Airlines in 2001, after more than 30 years of employment, due to his elaborate mustache. The airline put a policy into place in 1998 that “mustaches should not extend beyond upper lips.” While exceptions were made for Sikhs, who do not cut their hair for religious reasons, De’s luxurious locks did not qualify. De, a member of London’s famous Handlebar Club, took his former employers to court and the case went all the way to the highest authority. Unfortunately India’s Supreme Court dismissed the case and De did not get his job back.

This mustache gets an F

Closer to home, one young man appealed to the slightly tongue-in-cheek American Mustache Institute and was able to keep his upper lip adornment. Sebastian Pham, at 16, faced disciplinary action from his high school in Royse City, Texas, because of a policy against facial hair. According to Aaron Perlut, chairman of the American Mustache Institute, “ultimately we were able to have the policy overturned, and he became kind of a cult hero among his classmates.”

Court of Mustache Law

Mustache discrimination isn’t new. In 1920, a judge in Cleveland, Ohio, kicked a man out of court because he didn’t like the looks of the plaintiff’s Charlie-Chaplinesque mustache. A press clipping from the Coshocton Tribune, dated December 7, 1920, quotes the judge as saying “Anybody with a mustache like that has no business anywhere, let alone in a court room.” Apparently the man, who was suing his wife for divorce, was allowed to resume his case after a visit to the local barber shop.

Where there’s smoke, there’s a mustache

Before modern safety equipment prevented smoke inhalation, firemen supposedly would wet their mustaches, curl their lips in, and breathe through this impromptu filter. While the story goes, then, that 19th century firemen commonly wore mustaches as a personal protective device, modern firefighters are generally required to be clean-shaven as a safety precaution. One modern firefighter in Washington D.C. won the right to keep his mustache and his job, however, due to the District of Columbia Human Rights Act.

The act prohibits several types of discrimination, including that based on personal appearance “including, but not limited to, hairstyle and beards.” In the case of Brian Kennedy, who was fired for his refusal to dispose of his handlebar mustache and beard, the Human Rights Act was found to trump the District of Columbia Fire Department’s regulations that firefighters be clean-shaven. The Fire Department based its argument on the potential that facial hair could interfere with the seal between the skin of the face and the face mask of a firefighter’s breathing apparatus. Kennedy’s appeals started in 1980; in 1995 D.C.’s Court of Appeals ordered Kennedy reinstated with 15 years of back pay and lost benefits. During the proceedings, Kennedy demonstrated that he could get the proper seal on the equipment despite his facial decorations.

No mustache, no shoes, no service

There are also cases of reverse discrimination; pity the 19th century French military sapper or grenadier who suffered from sparse facial hair. While reliable sources are limited, it seems the gendarmes, or state police, were also expected to sport mustaches; this requirement was only dropped in 1933, and many still gendarmes still do display lip adornments due to tradition. Peter the Great made mustaches similarly de rigeur for every Russian soldier, excluding officers, during the early 1700s.

It’s probably worth noting here that in modern times, even under general discrimination laws certain institutions, including fire and law enforcement agencies are generally allowed to set their own standards regarding grooming and facial hair.