When a young black woman walked into The House of Ashby's hair salon in Southeast Washington a few days ago and asked that her Afro hair-do be converted in to the style depicted on the magazine she was carrying, owner Richard Ashby knew then that the end of the Afro was near.
The magazine photograph was of Farrah Fawcett-Majors.
When Floyd Kenyatta, owner of Fingertips hair salon in Silver Spring, finished whipping, whirling, twirling and curling a style he calls the "asymetrical beret," he asked the young woman stop whose cranium this sculpture now rested to whip and whirl her head. Hair flew like crazy, and when she stopped, each strand fell back in place.
Air brush on one hand, hair relaxer in the other Kenyatta proclaimed. "The revolution is over."
The word from the tonsorial soothsayers is this: Take your Afro hair pick and pack it; the 1950's are back.
"I started wearing a 'fro in 1968," said Jennifer Patterson, a 21-year-old Army enlistee who had just had her hair cut and curled. "I just got tired of looking the same every day," she explained.
The Afro look continues in a variety of versions, Washington area barbers and beauticians (most of them now prefer to be called unisex stylists), the Afro as fostered by Malcolm X in his speeches about pride and back awareness is all but passe.
"The bush has been fading for some time now," said Shelton Williams, owner of Shelton's Hair Gallery on Columbia Road NW. "Hair is a fashion thing, and I think people are getting back to that; Hair is an expression of personality rather than politics," he said.
"Nat The Bush Doctor," the patented name of a hair salon owned by Nat Mathis was recently changed after four years to "Nat's Hair Clinic."
"For a while we were being stigmatized because people thought we were an 'Afro only' shop. What is happening in this city is a drastic change in image," Mathis said. "Anyone who cannot keep up, is going to get lost.
Many stylists say they predicted - as well as prayed for - the new trends toward shorter, wavier hair four and five years ago. The Afro, because it required less cutting, was bad for the barbering business, stylists say. The new trend has business booming.
It is estimated that the top six hair salons in Washington catering to a predominatly black clientele now gross between $90,000 and $200,000 each year. Each of the salons handles about 30 to 70 heads a day.
The emphasis, the stylists say, is on the so-called "personalized look,"
Fred Jones, owner of Fred's Superstar Salon, specializes in the "Superfly Look," which his customers take personally indeed. The "Superfly Look." in effect, is achieved by having lengthy hair straightened and curled.
It will cost you $15 just to sit in my chair," Jones said. "You will tell me what you want. I will envision it. My hands," he said, forming a halo around his own superfly hair-do, "will follow over what I envision. And even though I have the scissors, you will be cutting your own hair. For $15, of course. You see, I take the joke out of styling. Fifteen dollars ain't funny. You know it and I know it."
What appears to be causing the Afro recession has as much to do with how people regard the Afro as the new styles.
When the Afro became subject to an array of utensils designed more to stab the scalp than comb the hair, when the price of an Afro "blow out" blew up, when wearers started complaining about broken ends and split ends, many started seeking a more simple style.
These new styles have as much to do with new shape as with length and texture of hair. According to area barbers, the major influence is apparently coming out of such fashion magazines as Gentlemen's Quarterly and Cosmopolitan.
"There is a new shape that has taken over the market," Shelton Williams said. "Not only with hair, but especially automobiles. The 'shape of things to come' you might say. The wedge look - that slant in the front style," he said.
"The large Afro is dead," said Nat Mathis. "The '50s look is alive and well in D.C. The wild look is out. Now it's conservative with flare."
Although many barbers are pleased that the new styles are bringing customers back to the shops, some are disturbed by the increasing number of customers bringing in pictures fo models whose hair styles they want copied.
"It's hard to face, but a lot of people want to look white." Ashby said, "I'm trying to establish a new black look, a Nancy Wilson look or like that. Television programming and marketing is having a tremendous effect on how people want to look these days and I'm not so sure that's good."
Ray Stone, 34, a Virginia lawyer who comes into the District for haircuts counters "The whole point is that you don't have to have an Afro to be black. Blackness is an inner quality - but I can see his point too."
Eugene Williams, a hair products salesman, said he doesn't know quite what to make of all this - except money.
"Business was never better,a" he said. "You have a new line of relaxers and permanent creams coming out like mad." But being close to the hair market has not made it any easier for him to understand exactly what is going on.
"My boy comes home for a break (from college in 1969) looking for The Wild Man of Mobuto," he said. "That caused the biggest argument we'd ever had. As you can see," Williams said, pointing to his own neatly shaped Afro, "he eventually won. So you can imagine how I felt when (last week) he came to visit looking like Superfly. We just laughed about it, but I swear I wish he'd kept his Afro. It really was a pride thing and I think we should keep it."
Aside from an awareness factor, Robert Beale, a 35-year-old doctor, said the Afro simply looked better than closely cropped hair, at least on him.
"I'll never go back to short hair, my hair line starts back here." He said, pulling his lengthy, greying hair back. "Plus I got this point on the top of my head. My head just looks better like this."
For Andrea Windfield, 28, who works fro a data processing firm, the Afro proved to be too cumbersome a covering for her head.
"In the 10 years that I had that style I guess I picked out two headfuls of hair. I know I must have spent at least an hour each morning trying to get it even - I can't stand those lopsided Afros. It took me about two hours to get it braided at night so I could comb it without yanking all my hair out," she said.
"For twenty-odd dollars a beauty shop could make it look just right," Winfield said.
Her friend, Pam Flores, 27, who works with the same company, interrupted, "But that only lasts a day."
"I know why many women stopped wearing the fro," Flores said, "It was you dudes."
"Yeah" said Winfield. "When was the last time you ran your fingers through some chick's hair?