With a nod, the requested towel is tossed to a waiting barber. He gingerly places it on the temples and neck of his customer, already bowed in position. Hot shaving cream is applied to the customer's neck, then deftly whisked off by Javi Olmedo, a tall, tattooed barber clad in black.
Actually, all four barbers fit this description, as do most of the customers. It's a typical Friday afternoon at Stay Gold Barber Shop in Pomona, Calif., abuzz with clippers, rockabilly tunes and colorful conversation.
Olmedo finishes his client's high-and-tight cut. "Want some pomade?" After an enthusiastic "yes," Olmedo's hand disappears inside a large tub and emerges with a glop of root-beer-colored gel.
It's thick, sticky and smells lightly of cologne. He works it into his client's hair, slicking from front to back. A few comb strokes later and the perfect pompadour emerges, held high with pomade.
Hair pomade enjoyed its biggest popularity from the 1930s through the 1960s, when many men's hairstyles were short and neat but needed help staying put. As times changed, men's hair moved to a more natural look: longer, drier.
Aside from a few perennial brands, pomade seemed to be going the way of the dinosaur. But pomade is back with a vengeance.
For most hair types, pomade is essential for creating a pompadour, the go-to hairdo of the rockabilly, greaser, kustom kar, barber and tattoo cultures — no modern dandy would use anything else. An entire cottage industry has sprung up in the last few years, turning pomade into a grooming staple. A vast array of scents, colors and hold strengths await the pomade enthusiast.
Traditionally, commercial hair pomades have been petroleum-based: They keep the hair in place while imparting a lustrous shine. Think Dapper Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Old-school pomades, like Murray's and Royal Crown, deliver great hold and shine, but they don't wash out. Well, technically they do, but it's extremely difficult. Many a pillow case and car seat have been ruined by "the grease."
Old-Time Style But Modern Wash-And-Wear
But in 2001, a new product changed the whole scene. Layrite Deluxe Pomade was the first water-based pomade marketed directly to vintage lifestyle enthusiasts, and its popularity was instantaneous.
Made by the fellas who operate the Hawleywood Barber Shops, this product has the strong hold and shine of "the grease" but washes out with soap and water, like a gel. With its pinup-girl graphics and vintage fonts, Layrite quickly developed a following. Naturally, more companies followed its lead.
Shine For The Lowrider
Based in Santa Ana, Calif., Suavecito Pomade targeted a large chunk of the rockabilly scene by marketing directly to Latino customers. The name "Suavecito" is synonymous with lowrider culture; it's the name of a killer tune by Malo, which is a standard on oldies-but-goodies playlists. The logo is a Dia de los Muertos-style skull that's combing back a huge shiny pomp. Even the slogan is a nod to Chicano culture: "Get It Hombre!"
The company became a familiar presence at car shows, rallies and music festivals. Even if the rockabilly/vintage lifestyle presence was minimal, the heavily Latino crowds embraced Suavecito, and it has become ubiquitous among pomade fans. The company just launched a line for women: Suavecita.
Smooth Sailing With A Nautical Theme
New to the water-based scene but already making a splash is Steadfast Pomade. Owned and operated by Cris Cervantes, Steadfast uses nautical symbolism and iconography — themes familiar to tattoo enthusiasts — to set itself apart. It's only been available for just over a year, but its cool blue color and clean scent have already become a familiar sight in stores that sell pomade.
While some greasers swear by their favorites, others like to change it up. The different scents and holds lend themselves to experimentation, based on mood, destination, even weather. There are even those who collect pomades, proudly showing off their collections on Instagram and other social media.
One such die-hard is Robbie Suede, a pomade collector who makes YouTube videos, either reviewing pomades or showing how to create the perfect pompadour. His inspiration?
"At the time, no one know how to pomp their hair!" Suede says.
Suede has tried most brands, but his personal favorite is Layrite. "It works the best, and it was the first water-based pomade on the rockabilly scene," he adds. He prefers water-based to petroleum-based pomades. "Water-based are healthier for your hair. They wash right out, and you can start new every morning."
Now, some hard-core greasers swear by the grease, the whole grease, and nothing but the grease. They think the water-based pomades are inferior, and they enjoy a bit of street cred for using the petroleum-based stuff.
But the numbers favor the water-based pomades. While more expensive and sometimes harder to find, the water pomades are wildly popular, and the fact that they wash out so easily lends itself to the grooming habits of the modern dapper man: clean, smelling good and not a hair out of place.