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BY DESIGN : West Coast Fade, East Coast Fad : The goatee's made its way to the other coast. Some are already wondering when it will go away.


BALTIMORE — Is it over yet? Just wondering. Eventually this goatee thing will blow over and we can all go back to leading normal lives.

For now we'll tolerate this annoying sensation that we've stumbled into an Old Dutch painting. Or another remake of "The Three Musketeers." Or the Seattle Mariners' locker room.

Somebody thought this was a good idea. Somebody in California, naturally. The names are familiar enough: Ethan Hawke, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Tom Cruise. Six years ago the reappearance of the goatee was heralded in the Los Angeles Times. It took years for a flock of migrating goatees to cross the country and reach Baltimore, where they were not spotted in significant numbers among young men until a year or two ago. You're tempted to say: Ah, goatees have reached Baltimore; goatees are finis.

"Actually, no," says Ray Mitchener, the buyer and manager at Ruth Shaw Inc., an enormously chic women's clothing store. Mitchener, known as an astute local fad-watcher, predicts that the goatee has years of life before it returns to that silo in Nebraska where they store all the discarded Fu Manchu mustaches and mutton chops.

"I think there are people actually discovering it still," he says.

He personally has discovered and rediscovered the goatee. In the last two years he's had three goatees. Not all at once. First for a trip to South Beach in Miami, in January two years ago, because "I was going to a hip place."

He shaved that one off and grew another. Then another.

"I think it's fun to change," says Mitchener, who is now clean-shaven.

Change indeed. A face is just a face until it sprouts a goatee. Then it's a statement: Look at me, I am mysterious. I am creative. I am intimidating. I am French. I am utterly bored with my existence, haunt coffeehouses and smoke Gauloise cigarettes. I play bongos. I play third for the Mariners.

Perhaps this is why one feels compelled to say something in response. Say, for example, "Nice beard. You finished with that copy of 'Le Figaro'?" Groucho Marx spotted a Vandyke on Siegfried Rumann in "A Night at the Opera" and said, "Don't point that thing at me. It might go off."

So, when do they come off? How do we know when this thing is over?

A friend in Hartford, Conn., who recently shaved off his Vandyke after a wild four-month fling, offers this theory: "When it gets to Hartford, it's over."

For a more authoritative opinion, there is Brad Edmondson, editor in chief of American Demographics magazine.

"When it's in Newsweek or Time, when it hits one of the weekly newsmagazines, I know it's peaked," Edmondson says.

According to a computer search, neither Newsweek nor Time has touched the goatee story. A few newspapers have written it, but these reports provide no clue about whether tufted faces are declining. Last February, the Washington Post first reported that the tufts were in. Five months later the Arizona Republic noted, "The goatee era is coming to an end. Thank God. . . ."

It's hardly an era. It's probably not even a trend. Call it a fad, Edmondson says. The difference is this: A trend lasts longer and signifies important social change. Women having children later in life, for example, is a trend. Women wearing men's boxer shorts is a fad. A fad may be the offspring of a trend, but by itself probably doesn't signify much.

Goatees primarily signify that men are befuddled. To shave or not to shave? Come on, guys, make a decision.

"Things like goatees, by their nature, are cyclical," says Martin G. Letscher of River Forest, Ill., sounding every bit the marketing and product research consultant he is. "I've just done some work on facial hair."

Despite this, he says he hasn't noticed the goatee thing. Perhaps it hasn't made it to River Forest, a Chicago suburb. Perhaps when it does, then it will be over.

Edmondson reckons that the goatee is part of the resurgent popularity of the trappings of Beat Generation aesthetics. We had already seen the reappearance of coffeehouses, poetry readings, the cultivated alienation of "Reality Bites."

Before Beatniks wore goatees in the 1950s, chin tufts hadn't been seen in abundance since Russian Bolsheviks in the 1920s. Mathew B. Brady photographs suggest they were hot during the Civil War.

In the 17th Century, Anthony van Dyck, a prolific Flemish painter, made so many portraits of fops with pointy chin tufts and mustaches that this style of goatee became known as a Vandyke. Without the mustache a goatee is just a goatee, as in goatlike chin hairs. Sounds attractive, eh?

From his hair salon in Mt. Washington, Tony Sartori noticed the arrival of substantial numbers of goatees about a year ago. They were mostly seen on students. Then he spotted more older men wearing them--college professors, doctors. So much for the bohemian rebellion. A sure sign it's over, no?

"No, I don't think so," says Sartori, who has never grown a beard because his wife doesn't like facial hair. "I think it's real current. I think it's here to stay for a while."

Sorry to hear that. This is like waiting for disco to die. Just grit your teeth and keep checking Newsweek.

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