Black hair is beautiful. Whether you’re rocking box braids, Bantu knots, or just letting your fro hang loose, every style is gorgeous in its own way. And in the last 100 years, black women have found countless ways to coif their curls—so many that we couldn’t possibly go over all of them in detail here.
Even so, in the last 100 years of Black women’s hair trends, there are some that stand out, either because they stood the test of time or because they just embodied the time people were living in. Looking back and appreciating where we’ve come from will help us appreciate how far we’ve come, and maybe give us modern folks a little hair inspiration of our own.
1910s: Chemical Relaxers
Relaxers have fallen out of favor these days, both because of the potential damage they can wreak on natural hair and the prejudice that it represents—the idea that black hair needs to conform to wider societal standards to be considered “acceptable.” Even so, many black women still sport this look, and any look at the history of black women’s hair trends requires us to look at all sides of women’s hair. Even this one.
Black women had been finding ways to make their hair more “manageable” for generations, like hot combs. But it wasn’t until 1909 that black inventor Garret Augustus Morgan (who also invented the gas mask and the modern traffic light) accidentally created a substance that seemed to straighten curls while developing substances for sewing machine repair.
The product, sold through the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company, used alkaline chemicals and eventually helped inspire the lye relaxers of the early seventies. And yes, they still burned your scalp back then, too.
The 1920s was an explosion of new styles, like the short-cropped hairstyles of flappers. While those embracing flapper fashion could do their short, bobbed hairstyles in a plethora of ways, one popular way to add a little pizazz to the look was to do finger waves. Fingerwaves are an S-shaped wave women created using hot tongs and a comb.
Because this style uses heat, Black women could manipulate their hair into this style as well. You can easily find photos of fashionable Black women of the day in this style, such as the famous performer Josephine Baker.
1930s: Gentle Curls
The 1930s was the Golden Age of Hollywood. And if you look among some of the Black actors of the time, like Dorothy Van Engle and Ethel Moses, it’s easy to see the hairstyle of the day—gentle waves and loose curls. If anything, the 1930s had a similar look to the 1920s, only the curls and the length were less extreme. Of course, that meant more time with a hot comb or a chemical relaxer.
1940s: Pin-Up Styles
As American men marched into World War II, women were trying out pin-up styles back home. These styles involved putting your hair up, often with some type of wide, elaborate curl. A few common pin-up styles black women wore back in the 1940s included:
- Omlette folds
- Croquignole curls
- Victory rolls
- Rolled updos
Women have been wearing wigs for thousands of years, so this isn’t a style that is technically unique to the 1950s. Black women especially often relied on wigs to help achieve those straight, European-centric hair fashions that dominated beauty standards throughout the early part of the last century.
However, during the days of doo-wop and Motown, we saw wigs on full display as a fashion choice for women. Girls singing groups, such as The Supremes, used wigs to achieve all kinds of popular hairstyles of the day, from bouffants to beehives. And young ladies often emulated the style whether they took to the stage or not.
As the Civil Rights Movement exploded onto the scene, Black women began to reject old prejudices against African features, and with the Black Is Beautiful movement, they began to embrace their natural hair textures and more afro-centric styles. As a result, we see women wearing their hair in afros throughout the sixties and seventies.
At first, in many ways, the afro was something of a political statement in the early days associated with black power activists such as Angela Davis. But even as the movement mellowed into the seventies, the hairstyle didn’t disappear. During the seventies, the look began to be seen as fashionable and still endures as a symbol of the funk and disco era.
1980s: Jherri Curls
Few things scream “the eighties” more than Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” from the synth sound to the dance moves. But if there’s one thing that is a product of the time more than anything else in that music video, it’s MJ’s silky jherri curls.
In fact, even though hairstylist Jherri Redding first developed the product that made jherri curls possible in the 1970s, that music video ensured that the style would be cemented in history as a uniquely eighties look. That’s probably why you see these curls in various films, from Coming to America to Pulp Fiction.
As with wigs, braids did not just start showing up on women’s head during the nineties. African women have been braiding their hair for thousands of years, using the patterns to denote age or marital status. And during the days of slavery, braids were a simple way for women to keep their hair out of the way while they worked, and could even be used to denote routes to freedom for escaping slaves.
But braids started becoming more popular in mainstream culture starting in the seventies, with Cicely Tyson gracing magazine covers in beautiful cornrows. But the popularity of braids skyrocketed in the nineties, with stars like Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill, and Alicia Keys wearing cornrows and box braids.
2010s: Au Natural
There has been another move toward embracing one’s natural hair as Black women in the last decade. Natural haircare products have flourished, and it’s more common to see women in media wearing natural and protective styles, such as:
- Twist outs
- Bantu knots
Ready to take your place in black hair history? Instant Arewa Hair has wigs in a variety of styles, including some of the ones listed, such as cornrow wigs and the accessories you need to make your beautiful hair look its best.