Sarah Rabinowitz and Sydney Pearl heart mustaches.
The Falmouth Middle School sixth-graders have images of the traditionally male facial embellishments on T-shirts, ink presses, key chains, magnets, wallets, duct tape and, thanks to fake mustaches, their own upper lips.
They can get all that mustache stuff because merchandise makers around the world seriously heart mustaches as well this year. At least, they love the money to be made ($25 for a set of four mustache drink stirrers at Pottery Barn!) in what has become a full-blown mustache merchandise craze.
Go online, go into any Portland gift shop, go to the Maine Mall and even the Portland Museum of Art, and you’ll learn what Sarah and Sydney and their middle school classmates have known for a while: The mustache as a style element is a very hot commodity.
“We started joking about mustaches last year, and then we saw some of the stuff in catalogs and thought it was funny,” said Sarah, 11, who has made herself a wallet out of mustache duct tape. “Sydney and I started making things with mustaches, and lots of other people did too.”
Sydney remembers classmates selling mustache merchandise last year at her school’s student store. Soon after that, she bought cookie cutters in mustache shapes at the mall.
Sydney’s mom, Jodi Pearl, thought her daughter and friends were relatively isolated in their mustache mania — until she started seeing stache stuff in her daily life.
“I saw all these kids making mustache things, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” said Pearl. “Then I was in a restaurant and saw these mustache coasters.”
As with any fashion trend, the big question is why.
In this case, the answer is big — as in, there’s no quick way to answer. Like many fashion trends, the image of a mustache on merchandise has sort of evolved over the years.
Mustache aficionados say the origins of mustache merchandise mania can probably be traced to the resurgence of actual mustaches a few years ago, after they had been out of favor for years.
Hipsters started growing mustaches because they weren’t popular — which, of course, made them popular. Then lots of groups started “grow a mustache” events as fundraisers.
“I think it traces back about five years, when we saw a rise in mustaches — they were uncool one day and hip the next. Then they started becoming part of all these charitable movements,” said Aaron Perlut, chairman of the American Mustache Institute, a 47-year-old organization dedicated to the promotion of the mustache and mustache-wearer equality.
“As there’s been this global effort to bring back the mustache, there’s been a lot of media attention to the mustache as fashion and sort of a retro symbol,” Perlut said. “Then this trickled down to people creating humor T-shirts and other merchandise, and then bigger stores like Walmart and Target started selling the stuff too.”
Trendy mustache stuff for middle schoolers at Walmart? Is that the way to live better?
“We know our customers trust us to have the items they want. … We offer mustache images on many different items from duct tape to costume jewelry and much more,” Debbie Wishon of Walmart Media Relations wrote in an email responding to questions about stache stuff.
Wishon said the trend “is gaining in popularity and we are ready to meet our customers’ desires with a diverse collection of mustache-themed items, saving our customers money so they can live better lives.”
The mustache merchandise trend has really taken off in the past year or so. Buyers for Maine-based Cool As a Moose stores began seeing all sorts of items with mustaches at trade shows and in vendor catalogs in fall 2011, said Karen Gauer, one of the buyers.
Gauer said such trends usually start on the West Coast. Cool As a Moose uses two major suppliers in Washington state, Gauer said, so its buyers were able to “jump on” the trend when they saw it.
In Portland, the popularity of mustaches and mustache merchandise is linked to a four-year-old event called Stache Pag, held at a different Portland night spot each year.
The event is a pageant in which wearers of actual mustaches compete against each other in categories such as “The Magnum P.I.,” with proceeds going to charity. (The “Magnum P.I.”, for those of you under 40, is a reference to a 1980s crime-drama TV show that made Tom Selleck the star he is today.)
The mustache merchandise trend has surfaced in some interesting ways around southern Maine, beginning in August when the super-hip rock band Mumford & Sons played a day-long festival on Portland’s Eastern Promenade, drawing more than 15,000 people.
A mustachioed gentleman in a top hat was being used as a logo for the British band’s “Gentlemen of the Road” tour, so local promoters used mustaches all over the concert site — on signs, on stickers, on tickets, wherever they could put them.
Later in August, at the annual Picnic Music + Arts Fair in Portland’s Lincoln Park, many local craftspeople showed up with mustache creations of their own. Sean Wilkinson, a graphic designer and an organizer of the fair, remembers seeing mustache pillows and a wooden car shaped like a mustache.
Wilkinson thinks the mustache trends — both real ones and merchandise — are influenced by the eternal cycle of things becoming cool because they are not cool, only to become not cool again once they become too cool.
“Mustaches are one of those hipster trends that starts because it’s not cool. So when it becomes cool, the hipsters will rebel against it,” said Wilkinson.
Thank goodness, then, for 11-year-old girls, who aren’t under the same pressure as hipsters to seek out things that are not cool.
Neither are art lovers, who have been gobbling up mustache items at the Portland Museum of Art this fall. A wide variety of mustache merchandise — some designed by Wilkinson’s company, Might & Main — is being sold in the museum gift shop in connection with an exhibit of work by the famous mustachioed artist Winslow Homer and the reopening of Homer’s studio on Prouts Neck to public tours.
A sampling of the stache stuff at the museum: Homer Hat and ‘Stache Coaster Set, $5.95; Homer Hat and ‘Stache Onesie, $22; and Winslow’s Whiskers (fake stache), $3.95.
Museum officials say they were at least slightly influenced by the national mustache merchandise craze to come up with all those funny products connected to Homer, whose work is taken very seriously by art critics and fans alike. Homer did, after all, rock a pretty sizable stache.
But even if you don’t know your Homers from your Van Goghs, it’s easy for most folks to spot a fun, slightly weird trend. And mustache merchandise has always been a favorite with kids. Think about fake mustaches and all the fun kids have had with them over the years.
“Fake mustaches are always fun. I had them when I was a kid, so I’d say they’re here to stay,” said Wilkinson, who’s 34. “You put on a fake mustache, and suddenly you’re Magnum, P.I.”
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: