To some people braids are just twists of hair; to others, high fashion, art or even politics.

At the Smithsonian Institution on Saturday, slides of ancient African masks with solemn profiles showed rows of bejeweled braids. At the podium were contemporary braid craftsmen, their own hair a simple crown of plaiting or a moving curtain of silver and purple beads. The audience wore a dozen styles of braiding, from dreadlocks wrapped with rainbow cords to braids twisted into bangs and a pony tail.

"I saw this style on a mannequin and asked local hairstylist Fana Smith to create it," said Sheba Freeman Starks, who works with a Washington concert production firm. The top of her hair was braided into toothpick-thin rows, with two large pieces cascading into loosely crimped and braided strands at the back. "This is the phase I am in now. I have been through wraps, beads, extensions. This is right for now."

On Saturday an auditorium of the National Museum of American History became the setting for a braid parade. The fashion display, however, was secondary for the art and culture historians, writers and braiders from California, Florida, New York and Washington; their goal was to document braiding as a valid art and fashion form, assess its contemporary status and secure for braiding a niche in black American culture, as dance, song and oration have. This inclusion is guaranteed, many of the panelists believed, by the social nature of hair preparation in black communities.

"The completed project is a work of art, with a full range of design concepts, color sequences, lines and movement patterns," said Bernice Johnson Reagon, director of the Smithsonian's Black American Culture program.

The American adaptations of the African ritual and status symbol began during slavery. "Cornrows, canerows, plaiting, that is what you got in the South, where black people had to work in fields," said Reagon. "As a child you only had hair loose on holidays. Loose hair, untied hair began to be a way of indicating post-puberty, you could get your hair straightened, that was a right of passage." For the first half of this century, straightened hair was coveted by most black women.

"This standard was set by black schools, by blues men--listen to this, 'Nappy-headed woman worry me all the time' -- as well as by the mass media," said Reagon. Mia Kuumba, a retired housing and community development specialist, remembered, "There was a jump rope rhyme, 'kinky, curly, nappy and straight,' and you would hope you would not miss on kinky or nappy. We have to reconcile all of that." Wearing natural hair styles, including braiding, became popular in the early 1960s. Today the majority of American black women continue to get their hair straightened, although simple and elaborate braiding continues to be popular among black and white women.

The artistic documentation ranged from presentations by Rosalind Jeffries, an art professor and consultant for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Roslyn Walker, a curator at the Smithsonian's Museum of African Art, to the informal sharing of a postcard of a black man, circa 200 B.C., whose hair was neatly gathered into individual coils. "See this card, it shows that dreadlocks have always been a part of the culture," said Januwa Moja, a Washington fashion designer, who had wrapped her own dreadlocks with silk and cotton threads.

Washington, a major center of braiding, received some mild rapping for promoting conservative styles. "You have more professional women here, and you have to be professionally accepted. You can't go into a courtroom with beads hanging down your neck," said Donna Merritt, a Washington braider. Ama Saran, a local braid-wearer, added, "You don't want a hair style that makes more noise than the typewriter." The braiders included Tulani Jordan of New York, Ruth Sinclair of Miami, Fla., Nawili Ayo and Malikia Hilton of Los Angeles, and Fana Smith, Ernestine Corbin, Anna Shabu Jackson and Cuchi of Washington.

The final reach for validation come from Stephanie Honeywood. "Did you notice that the photographs from Voyager I showed that the fifth ring of Saturn has a braid, and the braids have kinks in them?" said Honeywood, a job counselor with Arts D.C., an employment and training agency. "We understand the power of the kink, the ultimate wave."