Afros, cornrows, dreadlocks, and Beyond: The historical origins of black hairstyles.
For centuries, black communities around the world have created hairstyles that are uniquely their own. These hairstyles date back to the ancient world and continue to pierce social, political, and cultural conversations around black identity today.
From box braids to dreadlocks to afros, many of the most famous black hairstyles can be found in ancient Egyptian drawings, carvings, and hieroglyphs. When the painted sandstone bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti was rediscovered in 1913, her majestic beauty, accentuated by her imposing hairstyle, was unmistakable and she quickly became a global icon of female power.
Often worn in place of headdresses, wigs symbolized one’s rank and were essential for royal and wealthy Egyptians, male and female. In the year 2050 B.C, Princess Kawit’s sarcophagus depicts a princess combing her hair for breakfast. These wigs were often fashioned with braided pieces of human hair, wool, palm fibers and other materials which were placed over a thick cap. Egyptian law prohibited slaves and servants from wearing wigs.
Dreadlocks were often seen as a hairstyle associated with 20th-century Jamaican and Rastafarian culture, but according to Dr. Bert Ashe’s book, Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, one of the earliest known records of the style was found in the Hindu Vedic scriptures. In its Indian origins, “jaTaa”, which means “to wear twisted locks of hair”, was a hairstyle worn by many figures written about 2,500 years ago.
Braids were worn to signify marital status, age, religion, wealth and position within West African communities. Nigerian housewives in polygamous relationships created a style known as “kohin-sorogun”, meaning ‘turning away from a jealous rival wife’, which had a pattern which, viewed from behind, should have made others look ridiculous, wives of their husbands. If a young woman from the Wolof people of Senegal was not of marriageable age, she would have to shave her head in a certain way, while the men of the same group would braid their hair in a special way to show the preparation for war and therefore preparation for death.
Another hairstyle, still popular today, with rich African roots is the Bantu knot. Bantu is universally translated as “people” among many African languages and is used to categorize over 400 ethnic groups in Africa. These knots are also known as Zulu knots because the South African Zulus, the Bantu ethnicity, created the hairstyle. The appearance is also known as Nubian knots.
Cornrows gets its name from its visual resemblance to cornfields. Africans used these tight braids placed along the top as a representation of agriculture, order and a civilized way of life. This type of braid has served many purposes, from everyday comfort to more detailed decoration for special occasions. Other styles of knitting, such as box braids, are associated with eembuvi braids by Mbalantu women in Namibia.
During the era of colonialism, slaves wore cornrows not only as a tribute to their place of origin, but also as a convenient way to style their hair during long hours of work. Hair also played a role in how enslaved workers were treated; if the texture and wave of the hair was more like European hair, they would get a better deal.
The quest for straight hair
Even after emancipation, the idea grew that European textured hair was “good” and African textured hair was “bad”, foreign and unprofessional. Wigs and chemical treatments have become the way to achieve smoother, straighter hair. Braids were still popular, but this time only as a base for sew-ins and extension, not for public display.
In the early 1900s, Annie Malone and Madame C.J. Walker began developing products that addressed this need for straight hair. Annie Malone sold the ‘Wonderful Hair Grower’ treatment product and promoted hot combing through her company Poro. Although still not comfortable, the electric hot comb was a gentler alternative to previous hot straightening methods. Beginning in 1905, Mrs. C.J. Walker became a millionaire with her own home remedy for hair and scalp issues, the infamous “Walker Method”. Who combined a heated comb with pomade.
In the 1920s, Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey started a black nationalist movement in the United States to spread his belief that all black people should return to their rightful homeland of Africa. Although many dreadlocks like Bob Marley are associated with what has come to be known as the Rastafari movement, the Ethiopian emperor after whom he is named was known more for his facial hair than his head.
Early Rasta people were reluctant to cut their hair because of the Bible’s Nazarite vow. Tensions began to mount over talk of whether to comb these locs. In the 1950s, a faction within the Rastafarian movement, the Youth Black Faith, rebelled against any visual signs of conformity and split into the “House of dreadlocks” and “House of Combsomes.”
Afros and the natural hair movement
With the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s came the natural hair movement which encouraged black communities to accept their hair and move away from harmful products. The notion of respecting European standards did not correspond to their message of black power. Wearing these natural styles was her own form of activism and was seen as a statement of returning to her roots. Popular icons of the time such as Angela Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Diana Ross were known for their Afros. Nonconforming hairstyles of the time met with a negative response, as did many other aspects of the civil rights movement, and were criticized as “unprofessional”.
Jheri Curl provided a brilliant curly style that became a unique icon in its time. The name comes from its inventor, Jheri Redding, a white man on a farm in Illinois who became one of the leading hair chemists of the 20th century. In the 1970s, Jheri Redding Products created a two-step chemical process that first straightened the hair and then twisted it into cubes.
Comer Cottrell, however, is the man responsible for bringing this product to the masses. In 1970, Cottrell and two partners began hand-blending hair care products for their new Los Angeles company, Pro-Line Corporation. In 1980, they managed to create a product that replicated the look of Jheri curls at a much lower cost.
Curly Kit eliminated the need to book an expensive appointment at a salon, and in 1981, Forbes magazine called it “the best single product ever to hit the black cosmetics market.” In its first year of operation, the $8 kits generated over $10 million in sales.
Shape-Ups and fade
The 1980s marked the beginning of the birth of hip hop, which had a huge cultural impact on the style. Black hair salons in the United States perfected fading, but the 1980s allowed them to thrive with more forms of creativity and expressionism. Afros were styled with cropped sides for a hi-top, and cornrows were braided in with flairs of individuality. Icons like Grace Jones wore a look inspired by their album covers, and by the 1990s the fade was airing on television across the United States, via Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
As black men and women sought acceptance by going natural, they were met with resistance. In the 1980s, the Hyatt hotel chain fired black employees who wore cornrows. In the 1990s, FedEx couriers were fired if they had dreadlocks. At school, black children were told that their natural hair was a violation of dress codes or a nuisance in the classroom. It wasn’t until 2014 that the US military revised its appearance and grooming policy to include more natural hairstyles that were once prohibited.
Although these hairstyles have met with heavy criticism, it didn’t stop non-black groups from adopting them as their own, often showing a disregard for the rich history of braids, curls and dreadlocks. When Kim Kardashian wore cornrow in 2018, she called them “inspired by Bo Derek,” referencing the hairstyle worn by the white actress in the 1979 film 10. Men and women outside the black community are praised for their “new” and “trendy hairstyles”. which seems like, unknowingly or not, appropriated black culture.