Three jean-clad, somber-looking women sit at a table at 9:30 (not the time, the nightclub at 930 F Street NW), absently stirring their obviously neglected drinks. Nearby, a local New Wave band is blowing out a particularly exuberant performance, but the women seem oblivious to it all. Their eyes are fixed on people wending their way to the bar. A woman drifts by wearing her hair long on one side, shaved on the other, accented by her bejeweled army fatigues. The three exchange glances.
"What I want to know," ventures one, "is if they dress like this during the day? What do they do for a living?" Then, in amazement, "What do their parents think?"
Although people are still being taken by surprise, a New Wave is awash in Washington, spawning new business, and engulfing rock fans from Baltimore to Richmond with its high-powered music and stark, flamboyant fashion. Until two years ago it was one of the music and art communities' best kept secrets, confined to a few performances by a few local bands in even fewer out-of-the way locations. Since then its popularity has soared, and record stores, boutiques and nightclubs catering to the taste for the new rock and its regalia are riding high.
Wendy Ezrailson, owner of Commander Salamander's in Georgetown, is a pioneer in trendy fashion.In the early '70s she opened E. F. Sly, a successful boutique catering to the then-mod, rock-and-roll glitter set. Today's rocker shoppers push themselves through Salamander's crowded aisles to sample the latest in New Wave chic: vinyl go-go boots for $12, green leopard print bikinis trimmed in ostrich feathers, $25, and assorted studded belts, whips, tutus and sunglasses.
"People like wearing outrageous clothes," says Ezrailson, estimating that Salamander's made $1 million in 1977, its first year. She had done a thriving business ever since, she said, with the past year being the best."Washington's really a hip audience, very stylish, very hip. There are many people who are weekend New Wavers -- a secretary will come in and buy a spandex top."
But the current haute couture need not depend on money -- or lack of it. Rockers can shop either end of the economic spectrum. By taking army surplus or thrift shop bargains and adding buttons, baubles or pieces of masking tape, they can turn refuse into finery, the ordinary into art. One of the largest salons of cheap chic is Value Village, 4618 14th St. NW, where the fashion-minded can find trendy pink hospital garb for under $2 or a leopard print car coat for around $3.
"Business has been doing tremendously since last year," says William Benton, who until recently managed Value Village. College students particularly have become regular customers in their search for the latest vintage fashions, he said. Recently the store had a shipment of men's formal dinner suits, the ones with tails, that were hardly on the rack before word got around and they were snapped up.
"We have quite a demand for the clothes from the 1920s and '30s -- old shoes and spiked heels, dresses with beads and formal shirts with detachable collars," Benton said. "Anything contrary to the usual -- that's what they're looking for."
Hair as well reflects the '50s and '60s. Bouffants and ultrastylish cuts, streaks of colors from fire engine red to hot pink are a specialty of Roger Beach, a hair stylist at Bogart's in Georgetown, whose own peacock blue streak has faded from his long, red hair. Beach says the customers requesting the more startling styles are part of the traditionally avant-garde fashion set: waiters and waitresses, rock band members, groupies, clothing store employes and a virtual wave of college students. They are looking for more than mere style, he said, they're making a statement.
"Most people think they have to look a certain way for their jobs," he explained, "but it (New Wave) doesn't have to be outrageous or offensive." His "weekend New Waver" clients often ask for haircuts of uneven strands that can be combed back and hidden under the rest of their hair during the day and dramatically brushed forward so that it juts out for evening wear. Who are they? "Secretaries, people like that," says Beach, "people who want to externalize their frustrations, even reporters."
A little reporting turned up that one can go all the way, so to speak, with a streak held fast by permanenting or bleaching the hair that costs anywhere from $15 to $70 at Bogarts, or fudge by simply applying powdered color, available at cosmetic shops like Over the Rainbow, that can be washed out after an evening.
Whole hog or powdered down, it is in the clubs where New Wave comes together with people like Amy "Winkfield" Buchanan, a native Washingtonian who attends Sarah Lawrence College in New York, who says -- dead seriously -- that she feels comfortable wearing a kilt, red sash, torn blue tights and black ankle boots, even when jogging. Or Lili Ascher, a bank employe, who says -- again, dead seriously -- that her hair is not shaved on one side and long on the other for shock effect, but because her bangs got in her eyes.
These Wavers, or equally correct, rockers, are on the dance floor or in the procession to the bar at clubs like 9:30; d.c. space, 443 7th St. NW; The Embassy, 1840 Columbia Rd. NW, or One Flight Up, 4934 B Wisconsin Ave. NW.
"We make enough to pay the bills," says 9:30 club owner Dody Bowers, who dresses circa 1950, topping it off with severe close-cropped hair. Since the club opened in May, local groups like the Bad Brains (more punk than pop) pack the house to the point where the floor must be cleared after each performance. Says one 9:30 employe, "It's bad for ambiance but great for business."
Although Bowers says she was warned that people generally were reluctant to take the nighttime trip downtown, especially to an area where pornographic shops flourish, "The word spread like wildfire." Today the club features rock bands from here and abroad, and Bowers is exploring the idea of installing a video lounge in the basement where clubgoers can take a break from dancing to enjoy the music and video images of their favorite performers.
The galvanizing feature of New Wave is its music, and the demand for everything from punk to popular is booming. Record sales here for MOR (Middle of the Road) rock by groups like Blondie and Talking Heads are soaring, says Robin Cracknell of Record and Tape Limited, one of the largest importers of records in the area. Sales of such imported, hard-to-find rock recordings as Killing Joke and Bauhaus, both British groups, have nearly doubled over the past two years, he added, along with the prices. But the real money is in the sales of the more popular groups: "MOR stuff is selling well to the older crowd," says Cracknell. "Now the kids' parents are buying it."
Defining New Wave is like defining rock-and-roll -- as one connoisseur put it, "It's open to many definitions and prey to no one." But whether New Wave is England's punk scene polished up for the middle class, a fashion statement or an avant-garde art movement, it means big business. Like disco in its heydey five or six years ago, it looks as if it's ready to grow and here to stay.
For the time being, at least.