There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
It seems somehow appropriate that the Catholic church should be responsible for killing off the last of D.C.’s downtown wig stores. In the first century, Clement of Alexandria, an early Christian theologian, declared that wig-wearers could not receive a priest’s blessing because the benediction could not pass through a stranger’s hair. In A.D. 692, the Council of Constantinople excommunicated a number of wig-wearing Christians on the grounds that wigs were an affront to chastity. Priests who later tried to emulate their wealthy wig-wearing patrons in 17th-century France and England found their coiffures toppled at the altar by anti-wig clerics.
The church’s influence on hair has greatly diminished since then—but that hasn’t stopped the church from trying to bring about the demise of American Fashion Wigs at 927 F St. NW. Instead of arcane papal bulls or centuries-old Vatican councils, the Archdiocese of Washington—the store’s landlord—is squeezing American Fashion Wigs on the basis of a much more contemporary code: development economics. The District’s landed gentry see downtown’s lone wig store and its few remaining neighbors as a blight on their plans to turn F Street into a new tourist-friendly retail and entertainment “destination.” American Fashion Wigs’ rhinestone-and-pearl-studded tiaras and Motown Tresses don’t rate among their retail priorities.
Early this year, the archdiocese applied to demolish the store along with all the other historic buildings on the north side of the block. If the church succeeds, a 22-year-old institution that survived feathered bangs, Bo Derek, and suburban Price Clubs will be replaced by an office building, “museum” cafes, and a big-box chain store that can afford the new rent. Dorn McGrath, head of the geography department at George Washington University and a longtime student of downtown planning issues, says, “Tourists don’t buy wigs.”
Tucked in between the FF cups of the Dor-Ne Corset Shoppe and the EEE widths of Bare Foot Shoes, Styrofoam heads with bedroom eyes and false eyelashes turn fetchingly in American Fashion Wigs’ window. The models display the latest in wig styles: orange ringlets, the Farrah Fawcett, the standard bouffant. Inside, hundreds more sultry mannequin heads line the walls, with their Sphinx-like noses in various states of disrepair. Nearby are rows of elaborate sequined hats normally seen only on the heads of Easter Sunday church ladies. The little store is crammed full of bins overflowing with opera-length satin gloves, false eyelashes, and detachable braids.
A Jamaican woman tries on a short, red-tinted wig and laughs at her instant “wet look,” summer’s most popular style. Only the price tag hanging off one side gives it away. Wigs come in all lengths; prices vary by style. Human hair, however, is more expensive. One big amber mane goes for $120.95, while sportier models run $34.50. “Human hair, synthetic hair, all kinds of hair we have,” explains proprietor Esther Tak.
Nearby, a woman in a barber’s chair is getting her hair—er, wig—styled. She’s got kind of an ’80s Barbara Walters look going, with a full-bodied bob swept off to the side. Tak trims a little off the bottom, then gives it a good tease and a final spritz of Wig Spray to complete the helmet. “It looks real,” she says with a smile.
American Fashion Wigs is one of those funny pieces of urban landscape that insist on persisting in spite of the collapse of nearly everything around them. And when they disappear, almost no one notices. Twenty years ago, wig stores were a ubiquitous part of the downtown streetscape. In 1979, there were nearly 20 between 8th and 13th and E and G Streets NW—more than one per block. Tak’s family bought American Fashion Wigs in 1977, four years after arriving in Washington from Korea. A beautician by trade, her Korean roots gave her access to the world’s largest wig manufacturers.
But as Tak prospered, downtown floundered. The nearby Lansburgh department store had closed in 1973, and other small retailers started to decamp for suburban malls, leaving a trail of boarded-up buildings. Blight crept down the block, eating up even pawnshops and liquor stores, until the grand old lady of downtown, Woodward & Lothrop, finally succumbed.
Strangely, though, the wig stores hung on, keeping downtown alive—and historic buildings mostly intact. G Street Wigs, a stone’s throw from the MCI Center, held out until 1994. House of Wigs and House of Wigs II made it as long as 1997. Today, American Fashion Wigs is a faded relic of the days when 6th Street ran one way and ladies lunched at the Woodie’s tea room a block away.
The American wig boom officially started in 1958, after Life magazine ran a story about the Carita sisters, who were making wigs to match Givenchy’s dresses, according to John Woodforde’s The History of Vanity. Jackie Kennedy toured the White House on television wearing her elegant hairpieces; Audrey Hepburn donned faux locks to breakfast at Tiffany’s. Lt. Uhura kissed Captain Kirk in a grand pompadour, and Tina Turner ponied to disco inferno in a smashing array of fake coiffures.
As a testament to the transformative power of fake hair, in 1966, wig makers introduced the Smoochy—a hairpiece designed for the “not-so-pretty girl.” A silver-gray beauty that covered half the face and one eye, the Smoochy was so glamorous, according to Woodforde, it would make even the plainest girl turn heads. Wigs took on the politics of the times, too. Black women who couldn’t achieve a full-fledged Afro bought fake ones, while long-haired hippies used conservative cropped wigs to avoid questioning by the police.
Today, wigs seem rather quaint, like library cards. Most Junior League women sent them to the rummage sale eons ago. But customers at American Fashion Wigs insist that more people wear them than you might think—and not just cancer patients and transvestites, neither of whom frequent her store, according to Tak.
Holding a shock of hair wrapped in a crumpled brown paper bag—like pornography—the poised woman in the stylist’s chair says, “Most Hollywood people wear wigs. Oprah wears wigs. She’s even got one named after her. And Whitney Houston.”
Declining to give her name (this is a wig store, after all), the customer says women schlep down to F Street from as far away as Virginia Beach to get a wig. Why? “Easy,” she says. “Beauticians are rip-offs. If you get a wig done, it stays like that for two months—then you bring it back and get it restyled and washed.” The woman, who lives in Silver Spring, has been coming to American Fashion Wigs for 20 years.
It’s return customers like her, professional African-American women, and the church ladies who buy hair to match the hats on the wall who have kept American Fashion Wigs in business all these years—even as the Velocity Grill and other trendy pieces of the new downtown have come and gone. They’re regular working folks for whom hair is not a political statement. They consider themselves too old for braids, too busy to spend three hours at the beauty salon getting a perm, and too practical to pay hundreds of dollars for a hairdo that will only frizz after five minutes in the steamy Washington summer.
“Black people are always doing things with their hair,” says customer Miranda Richardson, who has run in on her coffee break to pick up a couple of ponytails. “If you’re going out and you want to look good and you don’t have time to do your hair, you just throw on a wig.”
“Men go out and get red Corvettes, and we change our hair,” adds Catherine Jones, a D.C. native who is shopping with her granddaughter. Jones comes in to American Fashion Wigs with her own hair cropped close to her head. She leaves 10 minutes later sporting a new ‘do of frilly strawberry-hennaed ringlets—although she has Tak cut off a few inches because she thinks the long hair is for “someone much younger.” Checking the mirror, she says, “I look like a totally different woman than when I walked in here. My husband is going to think I’ve gone crazy!”
There are still a few other places in the District to buy wigs, like Strong Wig Shop on H Street NE and Penn Wigs on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Next door to American Fashion Wigs, Scott’s Beauty and Barber Supply also has a few hair models in the window, as does tiny Kay Wigs across the street. But none of those stores have Tak, who styles to size and lets people drop off their hair for a wash and dry, to be picked up after work. The woman getting the Barbara Walters cut explains: “Most of them can’t style. If she leaves, we’ll be in trouble.”
The end of American Fashion Wigs on F Street is probably inevitable, though. The wig store occupies a fertile valley between the mountains of dreary office buildings that rise up to the west, and the National Portrait Gallery to the east. Cranes hanging above the skyline are an omen—like the scaffolds along the old Masonic Temple and the well-heeled tourists streaming out of the old Riggs Bank, recently transformed into a Courtyard Marriott.
The change is coming fast. Like downtown’s last wig store, the black customers who frequent American Fashion Wigs have largely been left out of the calculus of those white businessmen looking for an F Street renaissance. It’s only a matter of time before the Naomi Simms tresses are replaced with tourist-friendly Matisse prints, lattes, and the ESPN Sports Zone. In the face of one more museum print shop, the death of the wig store is sad enough to make you wish for a recession. CP