Here Come the Braids!

braid sienna miller Here Come the Braids!“I’ve been sporting braids for years now,” said Allison Pottasch, 20, who—stopped in Union Square on Monday, May 25—was wearing a loose-fitting purple shirt, jean shorts and a silver nose ring, her thick brown hair parted down the center and arranged neatly into two of spring 2009’s ubiquitous Heidi-esque braids (the Swiss orphan, not the Hills dingbat). “I like it because I can braid it when my hair’s wet, and then when I undo the braids, it’s wavy and nice,” she said. “I wear them not every day, but maybe every other day.”

Ms. Pottasch, an art student who lives in Fort Greene, did not claim Heidi as a conscious inspiration. Nor did she cite Nicole Richie, Sienna Miller, Anne Hathaway, Mary-Kate Olsen, Scarlett Johansson or the countless other celebrities whose braids have been steadily proliferating all year. “I would say they’re Pippi Longstocking–style, but just not, like, up in the air,” said Ms. Pottasch, who fastened them atop her head when she was Frida Kahlo for Halloween. “I used to live in Spain and I’d wear them, and people would call me Pocahontas! They never even bothered to learn my actual name!”

Modern famous women are appropriating and experimenting with braids en masse this season, wearing the once-casual style to do errands in Hollywood, on the red carpet at the recent Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum and to parties downtown. “I’ve been doing a lot of braids lately,” said Louise O’Connor, a celebrity stylist who has worked with Beyoncé and Jessica Simpson and owns OC61, a salon on 61st Street. For the Met, she styled model Coco Rocha in four braids that criss-crossed at the back. “She had sent me a picture, she said it was Grecian, but the picture she actually sent me was, it seemed, more Renaissance, or like the Elizabethan times, a very romantic cross between curls and braids.”

The currently flame-haired Ms. Rocha’s look took an hour and a half to achieve—“It was a very intricate hairstyle,” Ms. O’Connor said—and she wore it with sparkly gold Isaac Mizrahi, vamping on the red carpet with the designer himself, surrounded by other imaginatively braided heads belonging to Tyra Banks, Jessica Alba and this leggy model or that.

Ms. O’Connor argued that this is not a Swiss Miss movement. “When you mention braids to people, they’re like, ‘I don’t want to look like Heidi,’” she said firmly. “They want something a little more glamorous, goddess-type.” The assistants at her salon, she added, have been wearing small side braids at the front of their hair, like Jennifer Aniston did for this year’s Oscars
and Lauren Conrad has been doing on The Hills. “Angelina Jolie wore braids in some movie,  also!” (The forthcoming Salt, which was recently filming in New York.) “And anybody that goes away to the islands, they come back with braids. Like that movie—is it 10? With Bo Derek?”

Dickey, a celebrity stylist who has worked with everyone from Michelle Obama to the singer Kelis and just styled a photo shoot involving braids for Self, cautioned wearers against the Bo look. “Not the most flattering,” he scoffed. “You don’t want your hairstyle to say, ‘Oh, she just came back from Club Med.’” (Still: Heidi Klum recently wore a full head of cornrows to renew her vows with Seal at a reportedly “white trash”–themed celebration. )

Done well, Dickey said, braids “have always been a fashion-forward way to wear your hair, particularly in New York”—perhaps because of the very incongruity of the rustic style on our concrete streets.

Teddi Cranford, a stylist at Bumble & Bumble downtown, agreed. She said she was seeing a lot of braids in New York several months ago, but that L.A. is just now catching on. “Hair kind of follows fashion,” she said, citing flowing, bohemian looks being sent down the runway by designers (many of whom have also featured braids, among them influential and decidedly non-bohemian Alexander Wang).

“There are a million different ways,” Ms. Cranford enthused of braids’ permutations. “When they get a cut, I’ll style them with a really natural blow-dry and then just do a cute little braid in the front, and it kind of spices things up a little bit. But I’ve seen women come in and they’ll get a big braid off to the side and then pin it back into a low chignon, a low bun, and then they’re going to put on their fancy dress and off they go!”

And for those of us who can no longer afford regular blowouts: “It lends itself to kind of being able to get out the door in a hurry and look formal and fabulous,” said Dickey.

Of course DIY Williamsburg lasses, glimpsed over the weekend throwing softballs in McCarren Park and whizzing by on bicycles with baskets, are totally bonkers for braids.

“My sisters take, like, 45 minutes to do their hair,” said Zita Thomas, 30, a comely brunet graphic designer cruising Berry Street on Memorial Day with two braids protruding from under a low-slung pageboy cap. “I could never do that. On a good day mine takes five minutes, and if my hair’s being an asshole, it takes close to seven.”

She called her look “a traditional plait” (pronounced correctly). “From when I was 14 to when I was 27, my hair was shorter than most boys’—in Williamsburg, at least,” she said. Three years ago, she started growing it out, and she planned eventually to donate it to Locks of Love, which provides hair to young chemo patients. Braids facilitated this process. “I don’t curl it, I don’t blow-dry, I can put it up in a bun, I can put it up Björk-style or I can plait it,” she said. “I don’t like my hair touching my ears.”

Ms. Thomas paused at length when asked to name what famous person might have inspired her style. She couldn’t actually think of one. (Didn’t Elliot on Scrubs have braids a few years ago, she wondered?) “To be honest, I am so far removed from the media,” she said with a sigh.

mbryan@observer.com