They hang, wind, loop, swirl and twist in intricate patterns that define the imagination. Studded with beads of plastic, brass, glass and carved camel bone, they swing in the breeze and catch the fancies of trendy men and women.
Cornrows, the tightly woven braids that the baubles adorn, are rapidly becoming one of the hottest hair fashions in the United States. Their appeal here has spread from Anacostia to Georgetown. And Local hair stylists predict that cornrows will eventually do for the hair world what the Hustle has done for dance.
Professionals are wearing them into the office. Whites, men and women, are asking for them in the most fashionable hair salons. Children wear them. And in Africa, origin of the elaborate, beaded styles, once used only for ceremonial dances, the braids have become high fashion. There, specific hair patterns have traditionally illustrated historical events, class or marital status.
The appeal of the look, stylists and cornrow wearers say, is that it is attractive, easy to care for, cool in hot weather and especially healthy for black hair, which is too delicate to tolerate frequent straightening, perms, picking and hot combing without breaking.
Depending on the texture of the hair and how fast it grows, the style will hold from three weeks to several months. It can be dressed up or down with flowers and ornamental beads. And hair as short as one-half inch can be braided and enhanced by extensions -- synthetic strips braided into the hair.
Styles can take from 45 minutes to 10 hours to create, although a 15-hour creation is not rare. Two hours is average. Depending on the intricacy of the style, costs range from a flat fee of $65 to $200 in some salons. Hourly rates are $12 to $15. The price includes hair extensions, but beads are sold separately for $2 to $7 for a package of 100 or individual beads for 15 cents or more each.
After the hair is braided, the ends are sealed to hold the style by either wrapping the ends or singeing the synthetic hair. The style can then be washed, conditioned and slept in without coming loose or removing a bead.
"The only disadvantage it has is getting it loose," said Joana Adeboyeku, a braider at MIYA, a downtown artists co-op and braiding center. "With small braids it might take you the whole day to loosen it."
Adeboyeku, a native of Lagos, Nigeria, said the centuries old hair fashion is now being commercialized in her country. Elaborate beaded styles, previously used for ceremonial dances are now high fashion, she said.
Ernestine Corbin, a hairstylist at the Capitol Hill Hair Clinic, predicts the hairstyle will "outlast the Afro.
"I have a lot of professional women -- doctors, lawyers, nurses -- who come to me because they don't have the time to fix their hair," she said.