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Backstory: Remember the mane

Til death do us part? No way. For many men today, it's a jungle up there.

Parting is such sweet sorrow - William Shakespeare

TARZANA, CALIF. - Fashion update. This just in. American male hairstyles have morphed (again). Parts are out. Fluffy, frizzy, spiky, and nestlike are in. Call it the re-fleecing of America, the era of the multitasking mane.

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From mailroom to boardroom, the never-changing hairspray helmet look (think Republicans like Trent Lott and Bill Frist) appears headed in the same direction as the Jack Abramoff postage stamp. This is not a political dig: Overly Brylcreamed belfries on the Democratic side (think Harry Reid, John Edwards) also appear destined for the Smithsonian, at least according to trendsetters outside the Washington Beltway.

Urged by wives, girlfriends, and inner voices saying "you need a change on top," American men of all ages are plopping themselves down in salon chairs and asking stylists - not barbers - to "redo my do." The outcome: hair that looks like it's in a civil war - going in all different, and often inexplicable, directions. And no parts.

"I call it 'bad boys gone business' " says Tony Promiscuo, owner of the Godiva Salon in Atlanta.

More often than not, men are opting for double-duty dos - ones that can be worn conservatively during the workday, meaning combed in some discernable direction, and then transformed at night by gel, pomade, or mousse into something spikey and surly. It's the follicle equivalent of Bruce Wayne goes Batman.

"We are seeing a blurring of the line between corporate and cool," says Rodney Cutler, owner of Redken Salon in Manhattan and grooming columnist for Esquire magazine. "Bankers and lawyers want to be able to keep their jobs during the week, but transform into something more exciting for evenings and weekends."

The more daring dos coincide with an explosion of men's hair products, from mousses to waxes, colors to conditioners that are pushing men to funkify; spike up; swirl down - and lose the comb, brush, and blowdryer.

Hot in every age range from 15 to 65, the trend slacks off, of course, when the hair does. No mane, no makeover. "If a guy comes in here with five hairs on his head and says, 'make me look like Brad Pitt, or George Clooney,' we've got a problem," says Elaine Freed, hairstylist at Michael Joseph Furie Salon in Tarzana, Calif. "I tell him, 'hey this is a comb, not a magic wand.' "

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Salon owners see manifold reasons for the new look. At the older end of the trend are baby boomers who feel they've paid their social dues and can return to their anarchic teen roots of the long-hair 1960s, if only in current plumage (and only if they still have it).

At the younger end are Generation Xers, Yers, and Nexters who want to experiment with shaggier looks, color, poufs, and spikes - and who are meeting more social acceptance when they do so. This is both reflected in and spurred on by TV shows like Joe Millionaire, The Bachelor, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

"Younger generation American males do not have the stigma associated with hair salons, styling, and coloring that previous generations did," says James Fiala, cutting director at the AMP Salon in Las Vegas. "It's become much more of their ethic to try different looks all the time."

This dovetails with the age of the metrosexual and the post-sensitive male, in which men are more fashion-conscious - and competing increasingly with women in the workplace.

"It seems to mesh with the larger trend for men to become more immersed in the world of style," says Susan Kaiser, a fashion expert at the University of California, Davis. "Hairstyle might be one of the ways in which men can continue to be expressive and even a bit experimental."

All this seems to be the case with David Tatona, a 41-year-old civil engineer, who is sitting in the Furie salon in suburban Los Angeles. The shop is alive with the sound of Muzak, hairdryers, gossip, and the "ffftt" of goop-dispensing squeeze bottles.

Women in smocks with foil-festooned heads shuffle between sinks, where platoons of specialists daub and douse their hair with bleach, color, and curl relaxants.

"I had the exact same haircut my entire life until six months ago," says Mr. Tatona. "My wife said you have to come in here and meet my stylist and do something new. That's exactly what I did. We got rid of the part, she fluffed me up, moussed the rest, and the old me is history."

Not all agree that the new bulrushes look reflects a serious cultural shift by men who no longer want to be tethered to one identity. They say the haircutters of America have a vested interest in hyping just another trend by parting you from your part, and your money.

"This does not yet reflect the kind of big social changes we saw in women's hairstyles after World War I, or in men during the '60s," says Steve Zdatny, a history professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown, who studies the sociology of hair.

In the '20s, the short-cropped "bob" haircuts reflected a new kind of affluence and social autonomy among women, which was also reflected in the fashion of the day. In the '70s, American men were claiming that masculinity no longer meant the Johnny Unitas buzz cut, but could be expressed by hairstyles like that of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Yet Mr. Zdatny also admits he is a history professor who studies the sociology of hair ... from West Virginia.

In the end, whether epochal or not, more men are having their hair messed and moussed. "It's true that history repeats itself, and that is what is happening somewhat in men's hair now," says Jim LeMonnier, a regional educator for the 1,300-outlet Fantastic Sams. "The difference is more and more men are willing to spend more time thinking about their look and fixing it up."

In other words, it's all a fine mess.