The hair is bound up in a white cloth. Necklaces, earrings, and makeup are removed. From the neck hangs a white smock, upon which a silver-colored apron is spread.
It's all part of a day's work for some of the hundreds of ''color analysts'' who have set up shop in the past few years in American cities and suburbs. For fees in the $50 to $300 range, they study your eye color, skin tone, and hair shade, and then recommend the palette of colors you should stay with in buying your clothes.
On the face of it, it seems innocent. Each of us, after all, comes equipped with certain native hues, so the idea that some colors will enhance our appearance seems logical. After all, we call in consultants to help color-coordinate our houses. Why not do the same for ourselves? Nor should the fact that the trend has blazed across the land on fad-hot feet necessarily give us pause. The book at the heart of the movement - Carole Jackson's ''Color Me Beautiful'' - has been on the best-seller list for just shy of three years.
A spokesman at Color Me Beautiful headquarters in McLean, Va., one of a number of schools currently training color analysts, says his school has put some 300 students through its 121/2-day ''total image program'' - and that they, in turn, have analyzed ''millions'' of customers. Ms. Jackson's new book on color for men is due to be published in October.
Why such success? It has not sprung from any carefully researched theory of personal color analysis. While painters ancient and modern have studied the relationships among colors, the laws in this area are not well understood. And while psychologists continue to explore possible relations between personality and eye color, that field also remains largely speculative.
Not surprisingly, then, Ms. Jackson's central thesis - that mankind is divided into seasonal types, and that everyone, depending on his or her colors, is either a ''spring'' or a ''fall,'' a ''summer'' or a ''winter'' - is viewed by many as gimmicky. ''That gets into mysticism,'' says Dr. Fredrick Koenig, a social psychologist from Tulane University. ''It works,'' he explains, only because ''people want that kind of structure.''
That desire for a structure, he feels, lies at the bottom of the vast success of the color-analysis movement. ''Because the nation is redefining sex roles,'' says Dr. Koenig, people today are unsure of themselves and are ''looking for an identity . . . looking for compartments.'' Hence the success of a book in which, as he notes, ''you can find you.'' Is there a parallel? ''Astrology,'' he replies without hesitation.
Many color-analysis operations see one's color as an indicator of one's total personality. ''Springs,'' for example, are defined (in the words of one firm's literature) as ''very hospitable,'' ''easy to get along with,'' and ''energetic.'' Although generally ''unpredictable,'' they love ''busy'' China patterns, Louis XV furniture, dainty handkerchiefs, and colored tablecloths. For those who distrust their intuitions, an entire set of tastes is mapped out - perfumes, stationery, furs, and flowers included.
A surprising trend? Not really - especially in America. In the land of the melting pot, where indicators of social distinction are less inherited than earned, there is a long tradition of finishing schools and Ivy-League education designed to inculcate canons of taste. Blend that age-old desire for refinement with the modern thrust toward scientific rigor - where everything worthwhile gets reduced to formulas - and the result is inevitable: a ''scientifically'' diagnosed set of characteristics which, if understood, promise instant and unerring taste. It is as American as apple pie.
Or is it? One of the defining characteristics of American democracy, after all, is that quality of Emersonian self-reliance that prizes individuality. And it is precisely that sense of individuality - that confidence in one's unique tastes, aspirations, and goals - that gets whittled away each time a nation, lacking faith in its own intuitions, turns itself over to a technocracy of ''experts.''
Technocracy, after all, is not democracy. The citizenry is already in danger of ceding major powers of decision to bevies of ''experts'' in matters of economics, politics, hygiene, and science. Must it also turn to them to define its very personality?