Whoa, Have You Guys Heard About This Cool New Hairstyle, the 'Braid'?


In the spirit of Columbus Day, the New York Times has run an article about how braids are now becoming popular. The spirit of Columbus Day, in case you were wondering, is also the spirit of “treating something that’s existed for centuries as though it’s new because rich white people have just become very interested in it it.”

The Times article notes that the braid first began to reappear “soon after the recession began.” Now, it “blooms in ever more complicated iterations on red carpets and runways, commanding premium prices in salons.” It’s true: like children duped by the only girl in their summer camp cabin who possesses the ability to French-braid hair, aspiring Stylish Ladies are paying $35 to get their hair braided at the W hotel’s braid bar (someone kill me). If you want a “fashion braid,” though, it’s going to cost you $50.

The world’s gone braid-mad! Everyone wants in! Braid devotees are already constructing elaborate altars to the Plait God on Pinterest:

But, um, does anyone else notice a little something missing from this in-depth analysis of the braid’s apotheosis into Pinterest Deity? I don’t know. Does anyone else wear braids? Other than these savvy fashionistas who are tired of simply burning $50 bills and would now prefer to hand them over to professional hair-jockeys? Let’s think.

Well, according to hairstylist Ted Gibson, “Traditionally women would think of braids as a kind of thoughtless hairstyle. Now they’ve crossed over to the fashion space.” Right. It’s clear that by “women,” he — and everyone else quoted in this article — means “white women.” As anyone who takes a second to think about it would realize, black women have been braiding their hair, not thoughtlessly, since 500 B.C. To say, as this article has, that the braid is JUST becoming popular and trendy with all trendy ladies now is to overlook and minimize the experience of black women with natural hair. As Paulette M. Caldwell puts it in her essay A Hair Piece: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Gender:

Wherever they exist in the world, black women braid their hair. They have done so in the United States for more than four centuries. African in origin, the practice of braiding is as American — black American — as sweet potato pie. A braided hairstyle was first worn in a nationally-televised media event in the United States — and in that sense “popularized” — by a black actress, Cicely Tyson… More importantly, Cicely Tyson’s choice to popularize (i.e., to “go public” with) braids, like her choice of acting roles, was a political act made on her own behalf and on behalf of all black women.

Braids! They’re already popular! And they’re not traditionally “some weird lil thoughtless thing you do with your hair when you are NOT going to a fashion show.” Interestingly — and tellingly — A Hair Piece was written in response to Rogers v. American Airlines, a 1981 lawsuit that ruled a black flight attendant hadn’t been discriminated against after she was fired for wearing her hair in a braided hairstyle. The justification for this ruling was that the hairstyle had been popularized by Bo Derek in the movie “10”. Because Bo Derek is white and famously had cornrows, the defense argued, firing the plaintiff for wearing braids wasn’t racist.

So, can you guess who the Times brings up as a boho-style historical precedent to the new braid trend? Can you? HINT: It’s Bo Derek! (Also, puzzlingly, Willie Nelson). This is convenient, because I don’t even have to swap the name out in the following quote:

The very use of the term “popularized” to describe Bo Derek’s [or, contemporarily, these modern-day fashionistas’] wearing of braids — in the sense of rendering suitable to the majority — specifically subordinates and makes invisible all of the black women who for centuries have worn braids in places where they and their hair were not overt threats to the American aesthetic.

In anticipation of anyone who claims that this article isn’t about all types of braided hair, but rather about just one specific type of braid (i.e., the long braid, performed upon long, probably straight hair): sorry, but that’s bullshit. It’s symptomatic of a far larger problem in fashion that this trend piece wouldn’t even consider black women’s natural hair. Although the opening sentence does Rihanna’s side braid, it’s not meant to provide a racial or historical context — just an aesthetic one (Rihanna had a long, straight weave at the time). It takes a special kind of myopia to state that “the whole point of current braids is that there is no one right way to do them” and fail to acknowledge the myriad ways black women have been doing them for centuries.

“Braids Woven to Each Personality” [NYT]
Image via Getty.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin