Cutting Edge of Hair Fashions; Corn-Rowing, Plaiting, Afros . . . Black Hair Has Undergone Many Different Styles over the Years, as the Politics and Aesthetics of Black Hairstyling Exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery Shows. Caroline Foulkes Looks at the History of Black Hairstyling

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Byline: Caroline Foulkes

'I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself and laughed. My hair was one of those odd, amazing, unbelievable, stop-you-in-your-tracks creations - not unlike a zebra's stripes, an armadillo's ears, or the feet of the electric-blue-footed boobie - that the Universe makes for no reason other than to express its own limitless imagination. I realised I had never been given the opportunity to appreciate hair for its true self.'

- Alice Walker, Oppressed hair puts a ceiling on the brain.I

1905, Sarah Breedlove, a woman born into slavery, revolutionised the lives of black women across America.

She didn't sign a treaty of emancipation. She didn't escape from her masters. She invented a hair straightening lotion.

It made her millions. Under the pseudonym Madame C J Walker, her name became known worldwide. And for millions of black women, their beauty regime was never quite the same. By the 1920s, straightening your hair was seen as a way of gaining acceptance into the mainstream white culture by many black American women whose parents had been enslaved. This American aesthetic was brought over to England in the 1950s, with the arrival of African-Caribbean immigrants. Yet many of the products were too expensive to be used on a regular, daily basis, so people resorted instead to the 'hotcomb', a metal comb with a wooden handle that would be placed on a stove until red hot, then used to comb the kinks and curls out of natural hair.

With the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, straightening went out of fashion as black people began to look into their own history for symbols of power and individuality.

Dreadlocks, corn-rows, plaits, twists and Afros all became popular.

The Afro-centric movement of the 1980s and 90s meant this developed into a sort of 'hierarchy of hairstyles', with the assumption that political beliefs were reflected through the hair.

'There's also a lot of moral debate in the black community about black hairstyling, about whether you should mess with it or whether you should leave it natural,' says Lisa Harris, ethnography curator at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. 'The thing is, traditionally people have always messed with their hair in African communities.

'Some of them would spend days doing their hair. In a lot of African communities women would simply corn-row their hair, but for special occasions they would go all out. If you didn't do something with your hair it could be seen as a sign of madness or people would think you were a dirty person.'

Apparently, in Nigeria, if a woman left her hair undone it was taken as a sign something was wrong - bereavement, depression, or habitual dirtiness, while for the Mende people of Sierra Leone, neglected or messy hair meant that a woman had loose morals. To the Wolof of Senegal, a dishevelled hair-do signalled dementia.

'Fashions come and go a lot in black hairdressing,' says Lisa. …