Hair is a form of self-expression. It’s a part of who you are and can hold multiple meanings. The popularity of a hairstyle can come and go, but it’s cultural significance remains the same. In honor of Black History month, let’s take a quick look at some popular Black hairstyles from the past and examine their historical impact.
Additionally, let’s take a close look at how hair was used as a form of communication. From wealth to age, people could learn a lot about you from the type of hairstyle you wore. As we see these styles in our everyday life, we can point to them and discover where they came from, why they were created, and their roots in society.
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Wigs date back to Ancient Egypt. At that time, they symbolized rank, religion, and social class in society. The more elaborate and long they were, the higher your wealth and status. They were created to protect hairless heads from the sun, as well as flying insects. Wigs were seen as an essential luxury to those in power.
Those who weren’t in the upper class of Ancient Egypt weren’t allowed to wear wigs. If they were, they were usually made from cheaper material, like bamboo, instead of human hair, like the royals.
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Locks have also been traced back to Ancient Egypt. They were worn as part of battle armor or as an everyday style. Depending on style and color, dreadlocks can denote geographical location. For instance, thin and red locks are usually of Africa’s Maasai warriors. Some Nigerian children are actually born with locked hair.
Bantu means “people” and it is usually used to loosely describe the over 400 ethnic groups in Africa. Styles specific to that group or culture are named as such. For example, the Zulu people of South Africa originated the hairstyle, so they’re often called Zulu knots.
Cornrows, named for their similarity to cornfields, represented agriculture and civilized living. They’re a type of intricate braiding technique that is widely popular today for its efficiency, protection, and ease. Back then, purposes could range from the convenience of a protective style to an elaborate holiday style.
Before the Industrial Revolution and abolition, slaves wore cornrows for protection against long laborious hours in the sun. If the texture and kink of your hair was more european looking, you were treated better.
In some African regions, braids defined socioeconomic status. Additionally, the style of braids you were could symbolize something about you: marriage status, age, religion, or wealth. Because braids are such a popular style, with countless iterations, it’s nearly impossible to cover them all.
Other braids, like box braids, connect to the eembuvi brands of the Mbalantu women in Namibia. However, popular braiding techniques include many of the styles we talk about in this post, like cornrows and dreadlocks. Other favored techniques include box braids, micro braids, Sengalese twists, Ghana braids, and Fulani style.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s brought back an emphasis on Black hairstyles that were natural. They were a way to reject chemically damaged products that were used to give Black hairstyles more of a European look. So, instead of the “press and curl” process popularized by Madame C.J. Walker, Black Americans wore their hair in afros as a sign of rebellion.
Afros were seen as “unprofessional” in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, because they didn’t look the same as European hairstyles. Still, with the rise of hip hop in the 70s and 80s, we saw shape-ups and fades become popular, along with modern Afro types for men. This continued until the early 90s, when figures like Will Smith wore their shape up Afros.
Like said before, hair can be a statement, a form of activism, or just something you style on your head. But, by learning the necessity of some styles and why they were created, you can begin to gain a bigger appreciation of their place in our current world.
How do you plan to rock your next hairstyle?