In this article:
- The tradition of hair braiding dates back to around 30,000 years ago but is likely far older than that.
- In some cultures, it was a means of modesty, to keep hair out of the way and hidden. In others, elaborate braided up-dos were a status symbol to flaunt your wealth.
- Regulating hair and stigmatizing styles associated with particular ethnic and racial groups became a tool of cultural control in Canada and the United States.
- Today, Black and indigenous people across North America are working to reclaim traditional braided styles that they’ve been historically banned from or shamed for wearing.
It’s never “just hair.”
The act of braiding hair has a plethora of cultural, spiritual, and personal meanings to many people. Some of us cut our hair after bad breakups to externalize our emotions and mark a major life change.
Others keep their hair long and braided for religious reasons, using it as a sign of femininity and modesty. Hair shows up in media as a symbol for personal identity and accomplishments like in Tangled and A Song of Ice and Fire.
But perhaps the most famous and enduring of these stories is the tale of Samson and Delilah, two Biblical figures mentioned in the Old Testament. It was said that Samson drew his superhuman strength from his hair which was organized into seven braids. He loses his power when Delilah cuts it off while he sleeps.
The way we wear our hair says something about us and the culture we come from which makes it unsurprising that we’ve been braiding hair for thousands of years.
We’ve Been Braiding Hair Since Before Recorded History
One of the oldest known statues of a woman is the Venus of Willendorf, a small clay figurine found in 1908 that can be traced back to as early as 28,000–25,000 BCE. The Venus of Hohle Fels dates back to 38,000 – 33,000 BCE, but it’s the Willendorf lady who tells us something about the way women used to style their hair. The Hohle Fels statue is headless. Venus of Willendorf wears her hair in what looks like several coils of thick braids.
We’ll never know whether the Venus of Hohle Fels had her hair in braids too, but we do know that the tradition of braiding hair stuck with civilizations that came after. The ancient Greeks wore their hair long as a symbol of vitality and used hair cuttings as offerings to the dead. When it needed to be kept out of the way, hair was pulled into braids or ponytails, another ancient hairstyle.
Roman women who belonged to the upper classes wore their hair in complicated updos made up of buns, curls, and braids. They took special care of their hair because it was seen as a way to show off wealth, beauty, and youth. Think of how hard it is to curl your hair with modern equipment. The only way to achieve the towering braided hairstyles of ancient Rome was with servants.
Medieval women wore their hair in long braids that could be organized into a neat updo. Unlike the Roman women before them, hair wasn’t meant to be shown off but was supposed to be kept hidden under a veil in accordance with Christian teachings about female modesty.
On the other side of the world, several cultures were braiding hair as a way of conveying social rank. In ancient China, young unmarried women wore their hair loose and only wore them in elaborate updos after marriage.
If a woman had to work, typically as a maid in a high-status household, she had to balance practicality with etiquette. Tying her hair into a simple ponytail would disgrace her masters but doing it too nicely could be taken as dressing above her rank. So she would split her hair, braid it in two, and arrange the braids into a simple-but-not-too-simple style.
Koreans in the Goguryeo era (37 BC – 668 AD) styled their hair into tchokchin mori which involved braiding the hair and rolling it into a bun that sits just below the nape of the neck. Hairstyles became more sumptuous in the Choson period when false braided hair was used to give the illusion of volume. In short: they wore hair extensions.
Meanwhile, Japanese girls in the Kofun period (4th – 6th centuries AD) had their hair in a mae-gami, a braid placed on the forehead, up until their coming-of-age ceremony. In the Heian period, long, loose, and straight hair would become the pinnacle of feminine luxury.
Several Cultures Use Braids to Signify Social Standing and as a Means of Survival
Because of hair’s long history, braiding hair has gained symbolic meanings that are still in use to this day.
Indian women are depicted in ancient art wearing braided hair. The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai has statues of women wearing single braids like the one you see on the right.
The single oiled braid worn by Hindu women lets you know their marital status because only a widowed woman wore her hair undone.
The tradition is fading, but Hindu brides still wear braids for their weddings that are adorned with flowers and gold hairpins.
Many Native Americans grow their hair long and wear them in twin braids. The hair is given spiritual significance that, while varying from tribe to tribe, is generally associated with spiritual and emotional states.
Plains and Western tribes cut their hair in mourning. Seminole women wore hair unbraided and untied if they were mourning. Several indigenous cultures believe that hair and nail clippings could be used to bewitch its owner.
Braiding hair also marked a woman’s civil status in multiple Slavic cultures. Russian women used hair to tell other people in their community whether she was single, married, or in a relationship.
A woman braided her hair with a ribbon to show she was single. If she wore two ribbons, it meant she was engaged. After marriage, her hair would be kept in two braids and covered with a veil. Girls’ thick braids were a source of pride since thick, glossy braids were seen as beautiful.
African cultures had similarly complex social signals involved in braiding hair. A woman’s braids could tell you which tribe she came from, how old she was, whether she was married, what faith she practiced, and her socioeconomic status.
When African people became enslaved and were shipped across the Atlantic to provide forced labor to colonialists in the New World, braids began to serve a more critical function: as a lifeline.
Africans learned to braid grain into their hair as a contingency, in case they were captured and put on a ship to the Americas. This was done to prevent starvation as enslaved people were only given enough food to prevent them from dying during the trip and would be given the bare minimum for survival by their enslavers even during their years of forced hard labor on plantations.
Descendants of African women who escaped slavery by hiding in Suriname’s forests still practice hiding rice grains in braided hair. This video shows Edith Adjako, a woman of Maroon descent, braiding rice into another woman’s hair.
“In this way, she had rice seeds that she could plant again,” Adjako explains.
And plant the African women did.
Black Rice, a book written by Professor Judith A. Carney, talks about how West African women brought rice to the Americas before the arrival of Asian rice. Other crops hidden by means of braiding hair were okra seeds, black-eyed beans, maize, and, if the hair was thickly braided enough, cassava cuttings.
Braids are a symbol of resistance in another key way: as outward signals of culture. This is why policies that discriminate against minorities have often targeted braids as a way of erasing a group’s identity.
Policies on Braided Hair Were Used to Discriminate Against Minorities and Erase Their Culture
Deculturalization is a process in which a powerful, dominant group stamps out the culture and identity of a dominated group in order to assimilate them by force. Deculturalization takes many forms but usually involves forcing a group to abandon their language, beliefs, cultural practices, food, and traditional dress.
Canada’s residential schools were hubs for cultural genocide because they systematically stripped individual natives of their culture under the guise of “educating” them.
While some people might take issue with the idea that forcing natives to stop wearing braids and speaking their language is a form of genocide, Mary Agnes Welch, argues that its a key way for Canadian First Nations to put a label on the violence perpetrated against them. Direct physical destruction of First Nations was rare in Canadian history but policies that marginalized First Nations culture were rife.
Michael Linklater, the founder of the #BoysWithBraids movement, seeks to reverse the deculturalization of First Nations by bringing the braid back. It’s led other First Nations people to share their reasons for braiding their hair.
“In memory of our Mishomis, who was forced into Indian Residential School, we wear our braids with pride and love for our culture,” Daniel Garcia shared on Facebook.
In the U.S., policing minority practices of braiding hair was one of the ways Chinese-Americans were discriminated against. In the late 19th century, San Francisco put out a local ordinance called the “Cubic Air Law” that prescribed a minimum of 500 cubic feet of air per person living in a residence.
While it sounded good on paper, the law disproportionately affected Chinese residents who lived in crowded areas of Chinatown. This led to a large number of arrests which was then followed by the “Pigtail Ordinance.”
The “Pigtail Ordinance” was personal. It stated that prisoners in San Francisco’s city jail should have their hair cut down to just an inch, meaning that Chinese immigrants’ queue braids would be forcibly cut during imprisonment.
The fight over the right to wear the queue resulted in the landmark case of Ho Ah Kow v. Matthew Nunan where Ho Ah Kow sued Sheriff Nunan for “wantonly, maliciously” cutting off his queue.
Ho Ah Kow argued that the act of cutting his queue was an attack on Chinese custom and faith because the removal of the queue was seen as “a mark of disgrace” and caused “misfortune and suffering after death.”
The court ruled that the “Pigtail Ordinance” was unconstitutional for being in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The law was overturned and Ho Ah Kow was awarded $10,000 in damages.
Reclaiming Culture and Identity Through Braiding Hair
Today, minorities still deal with the intricate socio-cultural and political struggles entangled with the practice of braiding hair.
People of African descent have long complained that hairstyles, especially braids, derived from African culture are seen as “unprofessional” and “ghetto” when worn by them but acceptable when worn by Caucasian people and are even seen as “trendy.”
Aside from the resentment they feel about the social hardships they’ve been subjected to for braiding their hair, African-American communities feel stripped of one of their remaining ties to their cultural heritage as Africans considering that braiding hair is one of the few old hallmarks of African culture that have survived into the 21st century.
Artists like Shani Crowe, who made the beautiful halo worn by Solange in the photo above, are paving the way for braids to be seen as a legitimate manifestation of African culture by using it as a medium for art. Crowe makes almost sculptural braids inspired by the ceremonial garb and cultural artifacts of several African cultures.
Braiding hair is, in many contexts, never about “just hair.” Entangled in each braid are a long cultural tradition, a people’s history, their beliefs, and the wearer’s identity. If you’d like to learn more about hair and how it communicates social values, check out Hair by John Barrett.
If you’re looking for a heart-warming children’s story, Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry and Vashti Harrison is for you. But if it’s a heart-wrenching chapbook you’re on the hunt for, have a look at Still Can’t Do My Daughter’s Hair by William Evans.