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The Evolution of Our Braided Crown

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Photo by Maddi Hill of Tatiana Mason

The Evolution of Our Braided Crown 

By Shaniya Coffee 

 

“The functionality of braids is more about art culture than style”. 

 

Braids are taking over the world, from runways to celebrity fashion. They can be styled in a variety of shapes, patterns, colors, and sizes. It is impossible to keep up with all of history's hairstyles, but the classics of cornrows to simple three-strand braids are symbolic styles that have been signs of societal status, ethnicity, religion, and more. They date back to 3500 BC and are extremely popular among women. 

This low-maintenance protective style option, which dates back nearly 30,000 years, has been a staple for many cultures for centuries, particularly in the African American community. It began with the Himba people of Namibia in Africa. Braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe in many African tribes. Patterns and hairstyles were used to identify a person's tribe, marital status, wealth, power, and religion.  

However, during slavery, African Americans were denied the significance of braids. Slavery resulted in more than just physical and psychological trauma. Traffickers would shave their heads in an attempt to strip them of their humanity and culture. Due to the hardships of slavery, women did not have much time to create intricate styles. On Sundays, though, they would trade one another weeklong time-style hairstyles. Styles such as plaits were chosen because they were easier to manage and could be conditioned with oils.  

Remarkably, black women used braids as a secret message system for slaves to communicate with one another. Braids were a visual map to freedom. For example, plaits worn could indicate how many roads to walk or where to meet to escape bondage. This was prevalent more in the fifteenth century, in most west African societies including Mende, Wolof, and Yoruba. 

Braiding, according to Pace, was and still is a social art form. Elders braided their children first, and the children watched and learned from them. It was a never-ending cycle. This tradition was passed down through generations and quickly spread around the world as children began to practice on each other. As they practiced their braids on one another they learned not only the proper technique but shared stories and life lessons, creating a unique and strong bond. In the 1900s, braids became popular all over the world. Women, children, and the vast majority of men had braided hair. These styles have evolved into a protective style. Bridal hair protects natural hair from damage and humidity. Although it was recalled in 1865 to become synonymous with the atrocities of slavery, plaits and cornrows were increasingly being replaced by chemically straightened or pressed hair. 

This hair perception began to shift with the Black Power Movement of 1960s, changing the affirmation of black people and rejection of Eurocentric standards of beauty. During this period a deep desire developed to honor African roots, and styles. Braids became expressive of self-acceptance and self-love.  

Since then, various braiding styles have emerged and evolved into many of the styles we see today. There are many different types of black women to learn about, and each one has unique style preferences. From micro braids to the soft smooth texture of a Senegalese twist, there is a hairstyle for everyone. Here are some popular braids in the black community, and the history behind each one: 

Cornrow Braids

This is one of the oldest braiding styles, dating back to 3500 BC in Africa. According to Amplify Africa, clay sculptures dating back to 500 BCE show a woman from the Nok civilization with cornrows etched onto her head. 

The braids often have a thin profile and are placed close to the head, making them one of the most popular hairstyles for both long and short hair on black men, and women. Cornrows provide numerous pattern options based on how your hair is parted. Cornrows with beads became popular in the 1970s, according to Sims. Cornrows can also be used to create a variety of looks such as lemonade braids, faux locks, goddess braids, and crochet braids. Whatever your aesthetic, cornrows will always keep your hair healthy and feeling its best.  

Cicely Tyson made television history in 1962 when she wore the first cornrows on the CBS show East Side, West Side. 

Box Braids  

Box braids are deeply rooted in black history; the name derives from the distinctively shaped part at the base of each of these three-strand braids. Box braids provide styling versatility, as they can be worn long, pulled back in a bun or ponytail, or half up, half down. Despite this, it did not become popular until the 1990s. 

J

anet Jackson wore box braids best in the 1993 American romantic drama Poetic Justice. 

 

Micro Braids 

This braiding technique may not resemble a braid at all due to the use of small sections of hair. This produces plaits that resemble thicker strands of hair rather than interlaced braids. I imagine that this style of braids cannot be completed in a single hour at the salon. Instead, set aside an entire day. Your patience will be rewarded because the look can last up to eight weeks with proper care. 

In the television show Moesha, Brandy was known for wearing various hairstyles with micro braids.

 

Braiding has been woven into the DNA of Black culture for generations. I've spent many Saturdays transforming opulent curls into beautiful braids. It is widely acknowledged that finding a great braider for all twist, loc, and braid styles is critical. Braids will never go out of style in my opinion. They will always be fashionable due to their practicality and chicness. Hair braiding has progressed beyond its cultural origins. We must never lose sight of its rich history that spans over generations. 

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