100 Years of Black Hair
By Alexa Santory
For centuries, Black women faced a great number of hardships surrounding their hair, which to this day, continues to be politicized. From the Tignon Laws of the 1700s to social pressures to straighten it in order to be accepted, Black women have used their hair as a way to stand out and stand up against societal norms and Eurocentric beauty standards. Here at Belle Bar, we stand to celebrate Black women in all of their glory and include them in a conversation that, for so long, has left them out. As a part of our celebration of Black History Month, we wanted to pay homage to the uniqueness, versatility, and unmatched beauty of Black women’s hair.
1910’s — Press-and-Curl
Made famous by the legendary Madame C.J. Walker, aka the first Black self made millionaire, this style requires the use of a hot comb. Along with the popularization of this style, Walker also developed a line of hair care specifically formulated for Black hair. Walker was a trailblazer in a lot of ways and the popularity of this style remains a staple in the Black hair lexicon to this day.
1920’s — Marcel/Finger waves
Up until this point in history, Black women were often forced to shave their heads or hide their hair completely. The 1920s saw a wave of freedom of expression from Black women when it came to their hair. Because of the rise of performers like Josephine Baker, Black women felt more comfortable with wearing their hair in more unique hairstyles — the first of which was the Marcel wave, aka the finger wave. Invented by Marcel Grateau in France in the 1870’s, the hairstyle was popularized by screen actresses like Bette Davis and performers like Josephine Baker. The so-called “flapper” style was all the rage, especially since film was on the rise and more women were being exposed to glamorous styles of dressing. The hairstyle was often worn on shorter hair, usually bob length and sometimes even a short as a pixie cut, pushing back on gender norms and traditional ideas of beauty. In order to execute the style, women would either use a special curling iron, special hair curlers called bobett curlers, or just their own fingers to shape the waves. Black women’s hair held the style so well and was a testament to how versatile the texture is!
1940’s — Pageboys, Waves, and Croquignole curls
With silver screen sirens becoming more and more popular, Black women started to take more risks with their hair. Deep, long waves and croquignole curls came to the forefront of hair trends. Women of all races were trying to emulate the styles they saw on the movie screens. Croquignole curls are similar to the Marcel curl because of the tools that were used to make them. However, they were slightly different because the hair was curled inward from the bottom of the hair towards the scalp. Black women had to apply heat and straighten their hair in order to achieve this style. Pageboy haircuts — a shoulder length bob with bangs — also became super popular around this time. This style was a total departure from the waves and curls of the same era; it was sleeker with no curl whatsoever, just a small wave at the ends. Again, black women were straightening their hair in order to maintain the style. Natural hairstyles weren’t socially acceptable yet. Straight hair continued to be something Black women strived for. Due to social and societal pressures, Black women found themselves having to essentially damage their hair in order to fit in and be taken seriously, especially by their employers. Slowly but surely, though, Black women began to use their hair as a symbol and there was a major shift in how it was worn from the 1960s on!
1960’s and 1970’s — Afros, Braids, and the Natural Hair Movement
The 60’s and 70’s were a tense time in our country. There was a ton of political and social unrest, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing, and Black Power groups were on the rise. Within the Black Power Movement, the Natural Hair Movement of the 1960s was born. Black women were starting to push back on the typical standards of beauty and rocked their natural hair with pride. It became a symbol of rebellion and acceptance and Black women were reclaiming and redefining standards of beauty. In Ingrid Banks’ Hair Matters: Beauty, Power, and Black Women’s Consciousness, she states that the straightening of Black women’s hair was “oppressive because they were tools that symbolized the shame associated with Black hair in its natural state.” Through the 1970s though, there was a lot of pushback (isn’t there always pushback?), and the Afro was politicized again. Around the same time, in 1973, Cicely Tyson graced the cover of Jet magazine rocking an intricate braided style. This magazine cover is still talked about today because of the barriers it broke. Tyson was a huge star at this point (she’d just been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Sounder) and seeing her on the cover of a major Black magazine, wearing a more traditional African style, really shook things up. In the best way of course!
1980’s — The Jheri Curl
Does anything scream 1980’s more than the Jheri Curl?! This mega popular curly style was invented by Jheri Redding, aka The Godfather of Hair (he basically invented hair conditioner as we know it), and was perfected and brought to the masses by Comer Cottrell. Cottrell’s “Curly Kit” gave people a chance to do a Jheri Curl at home and the kit only cost $8! This price made it super accessible, compared to the $300 price tag salons were charging. The process of getting Jheri curls involved a lot of chemicals — a softener to loosen the hair and a solution to set them. Since it was technically a perm, it required a lot of maintenance. Remember the scene in Coming to America when they left the back of the couch stained? That’s curl activator and it really did leave stains. Small price to pay though, since it was the hottest hairstyle in the Black community through the 80’s.
1990s — Box Braids, Pixie cuts, and Platinum blonde
Ahhh the 90s. The time of Guess Jeans, Walkmans, and flat tops. Also a major turning point in Black women’s hair trends. They were staring to wear their hair in tons of different styles, all of which were super unique and so aesthetically pleasing. Box braids have always been in the hair lexicon, but they became super popular again when Janet Jackson wore them in Poetic Justice. Pixie cuts were hot too. You probably saw this on women like Halle Berry, Nia Long, and Jada Pinkett Smith! Black women were also experimenting more with different hair colors, especially platinum blonde. Women like Mary J. Blige, Lil Kim, Eve, and Faith Evans all rocked platinum blonde hair. Jada Pinkett Smith even rocked a blonde pixie cut! From side swept bangs a la Aaliyah to T-Boz’s signature mushroom cut, the 90s saw a range of so many styles that Black women weren’t afraid to rock.
The 2000s and Beyond — Anything Goes
Seriously. Anything. Weaves, wigs, braids, short hair, long hair, straight, or curly, how Black women wear their hair now is more free and open than ever. Natural hair has made a huge comeback, and the second wave of the Natural Hair Movement is in full swing. More and more women are opting to do the ubiquitous “big chop,” and return to their natural texture. The range of options is so much larger and Black women continue to use their hair as a greater form of self expression. It’s so much more than perms and trying to fit in now — it’s a true reclamation of something that makes Black women so beautifully unique.
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