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Detangling the Roots: A History of Hair

Yeah I know what you're thinking, another one about hair?


In fifteenth century African civilisations, hairstyles were an expression of identity. Hairstyle could indicate everything: tribe, family background, religion or social status. Elaborate hairstyles were the epitome of power and wealth. Whereas a subdued style could be a sign that you were in mourning. Hairstyles such as cornrows (or cane-rows in the Caribbean) represented those of an agricultural background (clue is in the name). Moreover hair had spiritual importance. Hair is the highest point of your body and therefore closest to the skies, so many Africans believed it was a way to interact with God. A passage for spirits to the soul.

Slavery began in 1619, erasing this history for the slaves. On slave ships, slave owners forcibly shaved the heads of those captured, dehumanising them. And it was done. The link that tied hair and cultural identity, severed.

Hair still had great significance during slavery though. Women tended to be allowed further from the plantations from men, so were often sent to look for escape routes. Hair and genius became a tool, as they'd braid maps into their hair. In the 1700s, free black women re-embraced more elaborate hairstyles. But, God forbid any black person disrupt the social hierarchy! And in 1786, Louisiana passed the Tignon Laws, forcing black women to cover up their hair in public. Of course, they didn't take this laying down, and often wore headscarfs in eye catching colours, attracting attention.

Post-slavery, "good" hair was seen as anything closer to European standards of beauty - straight and smooth. While curly, textured, natural hair was deemed ugly. Then came Madam C.J. Walker, an African American woman in the early 1900s, who became one of America's first self made millionaires, through her inventing and marketing hair care products to black women. The first known hair relaxer - the chemical product used to straighten naturally curly African American hair - was invented by Garret A. Morgan in 1909. And in the 1960s, George E. Johnson marketed it in his cosmetics empire.

From post-slavery to now, there has been much debate in the African American community about what it means to wear your hair natural versus straightened. A lot of this debate was sparked in the American Civil Rights movement, when Marcus Garvey made the proclamation, "Do not remove the kinks from your hair - remove them from your mind". So the questions that circulate around black hair now are: does wearing your hair straightened mean you think its natural state is not beautiful? Or are you making a political statement, claiming black power, if you go natural? When really, it's just about the individual's acceptance of themselves. This debate is less affluent in the UK. But there is definitely still a reluctance - even fear - for black British people to wear their natural hair on display. Not least because of professional stereotypes. Also from fear of judgement perpetuated by the media, like when ES Magazine removed Solange's braid crown. Even something as simple as school rules, which often tell girls 'no severe' hairstyles - when actually close cropped hair is a popular style amongst black women. There is less of a statement being made over here with natural hair, when actually hair has just as much meaning to black Brits as it does in the African American community, because Britain had a Deep South too. It's called the Caribbean.

In the 1970s edge control became a thing amongst African American communities. Originally, it was a way to make the fine baby hairs look 'more presentable'. And generations of women became conditioned to think that their hair wasn't done until their baby hairs were laid. The natural hair movement of the 2000s led to more of a belief that you didn't need to lay your edges at all. But whatever debates have been aroused, it has become more a thing of styling, which many women - and men, let's not forget Ginuwine - do because they think it looks beautiful.

Wigs are traced back to the Egyptian period. Then, they were used as protection for hair from the sun, and represented much the same as hair did in 15th century Africa. In slavery, wigs were also used by black women in order to achieve appearances representing European beauty, and have been used ever since then. Today, they carry a range of meanings - political, protective or beauty. But where are wigs sourced from?

The dominance of South Koreans in the American hair care industry began in the 1960s, with the popularity of wigs made with South Korean hair in the African American community. So popular were the wigs, that the South Korean government put a ban on the exportation of raw hair from its shores, ensuring that wigs featuring South Korean hair could only be made in South Korea. At the same time as this, the US government banned the import of wigs that contained hair from China. Together, these actions ensured the dominance of South Korea in the wig market. Throughout the decades, the wig business has evolved into more of the general black hair care business.

The South Korean businesses are thought to control between 60-80% of the black hair care market. That includes distribution, retail, and increasingly, manufacture. Whether for cultural reasons or for racial ones, this dominance in distribution makes it nearly impossible for any other group to make a dent in the industry. South Korean distributors mainly disperse goods to South Korean retailers, closing pretty much everyone else off from the market.

So there we have it. A whole history of hair. The way black people wear their hair has always been about more than vanity and beauty. But sometimes all the politics and history can make it hard, when all you want to do is style your hair in the morning! The point is though, next time you think about whether you should wear your hair natural, or get braids, or a wear a wig - the hairstory is a powerful symbol of all that has been overcome. From culture, to reconnaissance, to standing up to the law, we got here. So, when you stand in front of that mirror, and agonise over what style to do today, whatever you go for, take pride in it.

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