Pam Grier’s Afro Was a Thing of Beauty and Glamour. Let’s Bring Back the Iconic Hairdo.

Notes from the fashion apocalypse.
April 1 2013 7:53 AM

Bring Back the Afro

How a date with Blaxsploitation queen Pam Grier kindled my nostalgia for the regal, natural, glamorous hairdo.

A 1974 photo of actress Pam Grier at an unknown location.
Pam Grier in 1974.

Photo by AP

She was the baddest one-chick hit squad to ever hit town. The freak with the ’fro. I’m talkin’ ’bout Miss Sweet Brown Sugar With a Touch of Spice. A sistah with drive who don’t take no jive. I am talking about the Vanessa-muthafuckin’-Redgrave of Blaxsploitation movies. Have no fear, Pam Grier is here.

Simon Doonan Simon Doonan

Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.

You’ll have to excuse my profanity. I recently spent an entire week YouTube-ing Pam Grier’s ’70s oeuvre. By the time I was done, my brain had absorbed the raw rhythms and bad-ass expletives of ’70s black street culture. Now it’s virtually impossible for me to engage in conversation without suddenly calling someone, anyone, a dumb-ass jive turkey, and such.

My Grier research had a purpose. I scored an interview with Miss Grier at the opening of last month’s Pam Grier retrospective at the New York Film Society, and I really wanted to have my shit together, man. You dig? So I made my way through Black Mama, White Mama; Greased Lightning; Foxy Brown; and the rest. It was a life-changing experience. Miss Grier, the first blacktress to headline as an action star, was a taboo-busting screen goddess. Her specialty? Thanks to her outdoorsy Huck Finn childhood, the fearless Pam could fire a gun without blinking. I also have to admit that I came away with a rabid and renewed appreciation for that luscious afro.

In Scream, Blacula, Scream, Pam’s ’fro is short and tight and neat as a pin. In Coffy, it’s longer and more dandelion-shaped. In both instances it is an object of beauty, even when there are razor blades nestling in its recesses.

As I watched Pam machine-gunning her way to cult superstardom, I recalled the other afro-queens of yore: Remember Marsha Hunt—the original cast member of Hair, the icon of playbills and posters, and the co-creator, with Mick Jagger, of a child she named Karis? And then there were the Black Panther afro-activists like Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver. Kathleen, wife of Eldridge, was a loud and proud afro-advocate, who accessorized her ’fro with hoop earrings and giant sunglasses.

I remembered fash-fro queens like Pat Cleveland and stylish songbirds like Minnie Ripperton (mother of Maya Rudolph), whose signature flourish was to augment her teased hairdo with sprigs of baby’s breath.

The afro had it all: It was natural, symbolic, regal, unisex, and glamorous. Liberated from the costly and time-consuming burden of trying to make their hair resemble that of white folk, black chicks—and dudes—had found the perfect marriage of style and practicality. And yet … styles change, and fashion evolves, and the afro has—with the exception of occasional retro-hipster sighting on Broadway below Eighth Street—become as rare as a dodo.

Advertisement

It is impossible to imagine Beyoncé or Kerry Washington or Michelle Obama rocking a Pam Grier afro today (though Beyoncé paid a retro-camp tribute to the style in the 2002 Austin Powers movie). The alternatives—$2,000 weaves, time-consuming blowouts, and scalp-searing chemical processing—seem infinitely less desirable, and yet, African-Americans have largely turned their backs on the freaky ’fro. But what does this honky know?

During the course of my on-stage conversation with the inspirational Pam, the subject of coiffures came up repeatedly. La Grier, who on this gala occasion was wearing her hair in a silky high-lit, marcel-waved waterfall, was more than happy to talk wigs and weaves. When I expressed my longing for the return of the afro, Pam was quick to splash a little reality on my nostalgic longings. According to Lady Grier, it’s not as low-maintenance as it looks.

Actress Pam Grier speaks onstage at the "Foxy, The Complete Pam Grier" Film Series at Walter Reade Theater on March 15, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
Actress Pam Grier speaks onstage at the Walter Reade Theater on March 15 in New York City.

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

The most difficult challenge occurs upon waking. The act of sleeping wreaks havoc on the dandelion perfection of that carefully picked afro. As Pam pointed out, “You go to sleep looking gorgeous, and you wake up and it’s all flattened on one side like a brick wall.” According to Pam, “No amount of picking is going to pull it out. You need to take a garden rake to that shit.”

Also, the weather is not your friend: “You are walking down the street thinking you be looking so fly, so cool, and the wind comes up and suddenly you all flat up the backside of your head, lookin’ like a crazy person.”

Pam’s words did nothing to dampen my afro-ardor. I take comfort from the fact that style is a cyclical mutha and that everything comes back into fashion, eventually. The current global obsession with pin-straight hair will run its course, and the afro, and maybe even the jewfro, will return in all its glory.

Thanks to the current unpopularity of the afro, afro picks can be purchased at rock-bottom prices. I recently paid $10 for a box of a 50 from a beauty supply store in Harlem. These objets d’art make great gifts and can be used to tweak and tease non-afro coiffures. The grooviest picks have a Black Power fist in place of a handle. The revolution is coming, and it will be YouTubed. So get your pick now and start practicing.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

How Did the Royals Win Despite Bunting So Many Times? Bunting Is a Terrible Strategy.

Catacombs Where You Can Stroll Down Hallways Lined With Corpses

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Oct. 1 2014 6:41 PM The World’s Politest Protesters The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 6:39 PM Spoiler Special: Transparent
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 4:46 PM Ebola Is No Measles. That’s a Good Thing. Comparing this virus to scourges of the past gives us hope that we can slow it down.
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?