The fashion industry is being applauded for increasingly letting black and brown models wear their hair natural. But rather than choose from the countless styles that black hair is capable of, the same looks are rolled out show after show. Junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitcher questions why some models get all the creative looks, while others have to settle for being an afterthought.
It’s been truly rewarding seeing more and more black models at fashion week with each season (although we still need better representation of other ethnicities). Add that to the (incrementally) rising number of ethnic minority make-up artists and hair stylists who are ensuring all girls walk out with the correct foundation shade and catered-to hair, and it seems like diversity at fashion week is on its way forward. But the next stage of true representation needs to be addressed, and that’s the issue of inequality between hairstyles for black and white models.
When I first did fashion week nearly two years ago, I’d already seen tweets from supermodels like Leomie Anderson calling out the lack of beauty artists equipped to prep them properly for shoots and shows. I went to my first round of backstage shows expecting to see hair stylists tugging at weaves and the black models in a corner doing each other’s hair, or sat in chairs with their own make-up bags in their laps. Although this does still happen, to see that that this wasn’t always the case, in 2017, brought hope that things probably were changing for the better. Bbut since then I’ve noticed that while each year brings better representation, we’re still seeing the same styles over and over.
Every time a designer sends their black and mixed models down their runways sporting plain canerows (that often look more like wig braids) or compact afros, they’re applauded for actioning the change we want to see in the world. These particular styles, along with box braids and locs, have long been looked down on for being ‘unprofessional,’ ‘unkempt,’ or ‘a political statement’.
While it’s pretty rewarding to see the fashion industry now celebrate these styles and use them compliment designer collections, it often feels like a bit of a cop-out. Brands are making sure their line-up of models is diverse by the general standards, but not always by those of the individual.
Who decides what hair the models will have?
Here’s some context. Before every show, the designer goes through the nail, make-up, and hair looks with each of the head stylists in order to help their vision come to life. For that reason, I don’t want to pinpoint the blame on anyone – but it does seem like the straight hairstyles are created with so much more effort than the afro styles, which often feel like an afterthought.
While some clothing collections are minimal or structured, and the designer might want the hair to complement that, it doesn’t mean that just one or two of these default hairstyles should be the go-to. Black women who’ll go on to buy these pieces may not want to wear them with canerows; bantu knots, a twist-out, a waist-length poker straight wig, or literally any of the hundreds of black hairstyles will do. And more often than not, the white models are given loose tousled waves to offset their tailored suits, so why can’t black hair be equally as relaxed? The ‘undone’ look is sometimes granted to the black models with looser curl patterns, which highlights what’s deemed as acceptable when it comes to textured hair.
What happens backstage?
Before the show, beauty journalists gather around the lead hairstylist to find out the inspiration behind the look and how they’ve created it with their team. There’s so much detail, with looks often stemming from famous female heroines or decades in time, and requiring multiple steps, products, hot tools and hands. Understandably, not every hairstyle can be recreated exactly the same way for all hair textures. But doing elaborate up-dos or swishy blow dries for some, and the same default styles for others, needs to be questioned.
Almost every time we ask, “what look are you doing for the girls with afro hair?” the proud answer is something like “we’re really working with – not against – their natural texture”, with newfound phrases like “micro-afros” or “neatly shrunken” (actual quotes) bandied around. At one particular show, I saw hairstylists use a coat hanger coaxed into a circular shape with a pair of tights stretched over it to push afro hair down and make it “compact”. While the imagination and effort that went into creating that makeshift tool is appreciated, the ideology behind it is problematic.
Afro and mixed hair is so versatile, it can be styled in so many ways or amplified to make the most out of the texture. The styles chosen by these fashion brands seems to downplay the nature of the hair, rather than celebrate it. I’ve seen so many models walk in with beautiful heads of hair, left out or loosely tied into buns and ponytails, or picked out in full glory.
Once they leave the hair chair, all of that is tucked down into slick low buns or canerows, or diffuser-dried into compact little ‘fros that take up as little space as possible. And while a lot of black models have shorter hair, those with more don’t need to have it tamed into submission (see Issey Miyake and Dior’s Cruise SS20 for a range of hair styles, big or small, braided down or left out, neat or undone).
“I feel like diversity is kind of being sold right now,” model Londone Myers, the new face of Paco Rabanne’s Lady Million Empire fragrance, tells Stylist. “The fashion industry likes girls with afros and braids, but it’s like we’re not supposed to have anything else because that’s how they think black girls are supposed to look. It’s like a caricature. Imagine how different Naomi Campbell’s career might be if she had only worn an afro, instead of being a chameleon morphing into different looks and characters. It’s important to see different types of black women, not just one.”
There’s also the issue of length, which is always going to be intrinsically tied up in race. “When black models start out, I feel like we all have to have short cropped hair,” Myers explains. “Imagine if white models had to get a buzz cut. They usually have long hair with jewels and feathers for shows, while the black girls get the short-cut afro or braids.
“Why not nod to the 70s era, with icons like Donna Summer and Diana Ross with big, beautiful hair that defies gravity? I’m not saying that black women only look beautiful with long hair, but it doesn’t need to be minimised.”
Many of our ideas of what’s presentable can be linked back to Eurocentric ideals, and this translates across to how black hair is treated at fashion week. Why does it need to be shrunken down and minimised? Why are ‘messy buns’ and ‘bedhead hair’ sought after, but only on loose hair textures? It may be an extreme opinion, but I feel like the underlying message of all of this is that blackness is being accepted, but on certain terms.
Last week, H&M came under fire for having a young black girl model their clothes with apparently ‘untidy’ hair that had assumedly been neglected by the hair stylist. As opinions flew across Twitter and news desks, it was later revealed that all the child models used for the campaign, regardless of their ethnicity and hair type, had come straight from school as per the brand’s request to capture the kids in their natural state: carefree, and not perfect.
People were quick to call out the fact that others (many with afro and textured hair themselves) were perpetrating unrealistic ideals of afro hair themselves by pointing out the girl’s hair as “messy”. “This is how our hair looks – it doesn’t need to have laid edges and be slicked down all the time,” was the gist of many opinions.
And it doesn’t. The pressure to look presentable and neat in the fear of discrimination doesn’t originate from black people, but it can often be perpetuated by us. So when black hair is seemingly being celebrated by a very white industry, but is having to jump through certain hoops, it’s a sign that this newfound wokeness doesn’t spread completely to the core. “If nobody stands, then everybody falls,” adds Myers. “Yes, hair may seem like something simple, but fashion pushes our visions and it’s important to see the versatility of black women on big platforms, not just one type.”
Canerows add an ‘edgy urban vibe’ to a floor-length floral dress (or to Kendall Jenner’s night out), but they shouldn’t be used as diversity credits. If you’re going to make your model line-up representative, then treat everyone’s hair accordingly. Don’t resort to the same styles every other designer has chosen, just because you’re at a loss of what to do with all this texture. Do the research, bring black creatives into your team and into those important meetings, and celebrate the versatility of black hair, rather than pigeonhole it into one progressive little package.