Whether it spirals, coils, loops and zig zags, or grows upwards and defies gravity, even accentuates length, black hair is mesmerising. As a cultural aesthetic, we have to celebrate its existence, even if the mainstream industry does not.
Hair to a black woman is like investing in a designer product, it takes pride in her everyday appearance, and it is well looked after and well maintained. More often than not, a hairstyle is thoroughly thought through and is perfectly styled, with many hours spent either in the salon or at the foot of a self-taught hairdresser. Black hair is culturally considered a political statement rather than an aesthetic choice and this has been strongly influenced by the black women before us.
The 1920’s were a time for close-cropped hair and pin curls brought to us by dancer and world entertainer Josephine Baker. The 40’s celebrated Billie Holiday and her curls permed tightly away from the face whereas the 50’s reflected a much more reserved hairstyle and popular use of the hot-comb. An adventurous decade, the swinging’ 60s welcomed big hair and big cat eyes to match, with the thriving music scene, Motown showcased women to celebrate their black identity within the racial restrictions. The 70’s used the Afro to make a social statement in response to the civil rights movement; author and political activist Angela Davis paved the way as an iconic status for the Afro, linking it with black cultural freedom and still to this day the ‘fro is considered as breaking away from institutionalised oppression. 1980’s were the decade for the teased hairstyle, worn proudly by Vanessa from The Cosby’s and the 90’s brought on the box braids, shown off exquisitely by Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. Bringing in the millennium, brought about an experimentation of styles, from the use of weaves and wigs to the maintenance of natural hairstyles. Black hair has certainly been on a journey that is undeniably political and personal to the identity of the black woman.
Even though the black hair phenomenon is intrinsic in the cultural DNA, it still stands as an issue of controversy when it comes to the mainstream practice and its consideration as a profitable market. The Black hair care industry is currently valued at £592 billion pounds, according to Mintel, the world’s leading marketing intelligence agency, and yet its representation within stores lack key sightline visibility. Leading UK drugstore, Boots, cater only a few shelves to black hair products – their ranges lack choice in brands and types of product. Compare the four shelves given to textured hair and the four aisles given to the European hair market, it seems unjustifiable. Considering the non-white market that exists within the UK, this representation is unfair and
rather out of line when it comes to diversity. Women find themselves shopping in local shops for the correct shampoos, conditioners and serums. Even with local shops providing a respectable service; it is the psychological effect of having to buy products from a local shop rather than the glossy chains that are provided for European hair.
The struggle for recognition when it comes to black hair has definitely been a topic of conversation until women started celebrating their kinks, curls and edges. In 2016, music artist Solange Knowles released her black-conscious album A Seat at the Table, which celebrated the black experience. More recently her efforts in celebrating black hair has been a story of power and resilience. “I believe that hair is incredibly spiritual, and, energetically, it really encompasses and expresses who we are.” Discussing the song Don’t touch my Hair, she expresses “the song expressively voices what it feels like to have your whole identity challenged on daily basis”. With other artists, actresses and influencers embracing hairstyles that pay homage to black hair culture, take actress Zendaya Coleman channelling a Pam Grier-esque Afro at the recent Instyle Awards, black-conscious hairstyles have become a way to celebrate the culture despite the social constraints.
We are now met with hairstyles that make an effort to pay homage to the black hair journey. Whether the weave is a 28” Peruvian body or embracing natural curls, black hair has become a way of expression, gratitude and most importantly a continuation of identity outside of societal expectations.