The 90s was a defining decade for black hairstyles, with Brandy’s signature braids worn in TV show Moesha standing boldy in a sea of whiteness, at a time when ‘the Rachel’ was all the rage. Here, writer Leah Sinclair charts the history and significance of black hairstyles.
Growing up, black hair was always a topic of discussion. For black women, our hair has been subjected to constant scrutiny and discrimination, resulting in a very complex relationship. I bet we’ve all gone through the phases of loving our hair, then despising it, to constantly hiding it, to embracing it in all of its tangly, kinky and beautiful glory.
I was one of those women – although with an aspect of privilege. As a child, I was glorified for what was described as having “good hair” – a damaging phrase frequently uttered in the Afro Caribbean community. While it was meant as a compliment, it was riddled in Westernised beauty standards. My hair was glorified for its length (long hair is something which is historically not attributed to black women – and a lie) and for its texture. The closer in proximity to whiteness you were – i.e. the texture and length of your hair – the more it was deemed acceptable and therefore “good”.
Despite this, I too went through a phase of hating my hair. I hated the fact that it took forever to lay flat, no matter how many ounces of gel I plied into it. I hated that if I straightened it, it would kink up at the slightest drop of moisture. I hated the fact that my so called “good hair” felt like a bad headache.
So like many, I went on down the creamy crack road as I permed my hair and chopped it into a short bob. This damaging relationship lasted for about three years, and in between that were some awful weaves.
In 2014, I decided to go back to natural and relieve my hair of all the chemicals. In turn I started braiding my hair, a pastime I hadn’t embraced since I was a child. What then began was a love affair with box braids of all lengths and colours, which gave me a sense of pride in my hair and what it signified.
It was an awakening of sorts as I rocked my 1b microbraids like Brandy, and jet black box braids like Janet Jackson – the women who shaped black hair history for me and millions of others.
Black hairstyles: where did it all begin?
The origins of afro hair styles and its wider significance originated back in Africa as hair displayed a way to show one’s status, identity, religion, and ancestry. The socio-politicalness of afro hair even played a role in slavery, as darker skinned slaves with a kinkier afro hair texture were made to work in the fields, while those with a looser, straighter texture were permitted to work in the houses.
Throughout history, black women have been pressured to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards, leading many to explore solutions to straightening their hair and leaving behind the braided cornrow styles that they associated with slavery.
Black hairstyles: the politics of black hair
While straightening afro hair remained a trend in the early 20th century, the ‘fro emerged as a form of political expression in the 60s. With the Civil Rights movement, women like Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver wore their natural fros as an assertion of their black identity and a protest against westernised standards and the oppression faced by black people. A style that was natural to us became a symbol of resistance and pro-blackness that filtered through to popular culture.
While many black women rocked styles such as bouffants and sleek bobs, actress Cicely Tyson broke the mould and became a leading figure in the natural hair movement as well as one of the key celebrities to embrace natural styles. Tyson’s first live television role saw her rock her natural hair, triggering a movement across America, as the afro became more than an association to the Black Panther Party.
This paved the way for Pam Grier to rock her fro in 70s film Foxy Brown. She was followed by Tamara Dobson in 1973’s Cleopatra Jones and hair icon Diana Ross, whose multitude of looks would transcend decades as she rocked everything from a full bodied ‘fro to a sleek wet cut.
Black hairstyles: a change
The 80s saw a break away from natural hair styles as the hair trend led to all things wet, dried, cut and fried. The end of the Black Panther Party and the popularity of jheri curls and other permed styles saw a transition in black hair away from something sociopolitical and more rooted in glossy tresses.
Salt N Pepa’s asymmetrical hairstyle became the go-to look of the late 80s and early 90s, as the duo popularised the hairstyle which can be seen in all our family photo albums from back in the day. The idea of black hair as a form of self-expression could be seen in the playful and feisty nature that Salt N Pepa embodied from their music to their hair, which trended globally.
Black hairstyles: bringing braids back in the 90s
In the 90s and early 2000s, braided styles began making a comeback, and were seen as a physical depiction of black girl magic. We saw many iconic black women of the 90s swaying their perfected braids in front of our TV screens.
Janet Jackson was one of the women to popularise the box braid trend in 1993, after appearing in the movie Poetic Justice. Whether worn long or short, black or blonde, braids were the must-have style for all black girls, and there was one woman in particular who inspired me – Brandy.
For most black millennials, Brandy was a 90s TV icon. At a time where finding a black female teenage lead on television was pretty rare, Brandy shone like a beacon of light as we followed her daily trials and tribulations – and her array of braided hairstyles – in Moesha. Her signature braids stood boldly in a sea of whiteness, at a time where “the Rachel” was all the rage and black beauty was only celebrated in the confines of our own culture. What came with Brandy was an acceptance of blackness in the face of whiteness – and she broke many beauty standards, becoming one of the first black artists to appear in a campaign for CoverGirl cosmetics.
For me, Janet and Brandy really signified a change in how I viewed black hair – I had a real appreciation for them and the fellow black female celebrities who embraced natural styles, but also had fun with their hair.
From Alicia Keys’ signature fulani braids to Rihanna’s wigs, weaves and everything in between, we’ve seen a variety of hairstyles occupied by black women. While some debate that the rise of wigs and weaves signify a return to Eurocentric beauty standards, I see it as an opportunity to have a choice – a choice we didn’t feel we had in the past.
While natural hair was seen as something symbolic and straight hair was seen as an assimilation into white culture, today black women are doing it all and are refusing to be limited to either style.
The black women setting trends now are all of us. We are not defining our hair based on the current sociopolitical climate, or what is deemed acceptable. This was perfectly encapsulated in the #DMXchallenge – a viral trend which saw black women use the lyrics of DMX’s track What They Want to showcase the various hairstyles we rock and the liberation that comes with that.
While I stay pretty dedicated to my box braids, I had a real appreciation for this challenge. As I marvelled at the sea of colours and patterns rocked by black woman globally, I reflected on how far we have come.
Our hair is never just our hair – after all, afro hair discrimination is still very real and the way I’m treated differs according to what hairstyle I occupy. But we are remaining persistent in not limiting ourselves to one specific lane. If we want to rock straight hair then we will. And if the next week we want to rock a fro, it’s because we can. There are no limitations, and the black hair icons of our past did the work to allow us to draw from whatever style we want.
Today I think I’ll rock “The Brandy” but next week, who knows? And isn’t that beautiful?