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Hair Braids: Journey From Ancient Cultural Tradition to Popular Hip-Hop, Political Fashion

Claudette, a freelance writer interested in numerous topics, writes on subjects from music, history and hair braiding to caribbean culture.

A Historical Perspective of Hair Braids

To get a handle on the breath and scope of hair braids, we have to start at the beginning, or at least as far back as evidence will allow us to travel.

Hair-braiding is an ancient art form and cultural tradition practiced and passed down through the ages; and as determined by certain archeological discoveries, has been around for a long, long time.

Just how far back the art of hair braiding can be traced may be seen in the clearly visible hair braids in photographs of the mummy Queen Nedjment (1070-946 B.C.E.). Nedjmet was a Queen of the ancient African civilization of Kush, now known as the Sudan.

Archeologists stated that the mummy of Queen Nedjmet was buried wearing a wig, which has little to no bearing on our purpose of determining the start of the style. Since Nedjmet's braids are absolutely evident in the photographs, we know that braids were a hair style worn by women (at least of a certain station), during that period; which provides a point of reference as to where it all began, and how far back braids can be traced.

Mummy of Queen Nedjmet of Kush (1070-946 B.C.E.)

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In West Africa, the ancestral homeland of most African Americans, hair braiding was and continues to be a part of the cultural tradition; and at one time was considered so significant that many regions wore distinctive braids as a means of tribal identification.

There were a number of social and political functions attached to the hair style in those societies: specific, intricate styles were often used in ceremonial rituals, such as weddings, but were also cultural and demographic sign posts pointing to different age groups, societal status, and were even designations of royalty.

Hair Braids in Africa as Both Ritual and Adornment

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Braids Around the World

Over time, hair braiding made its way around the world, so that today, as well as Africa, numerous countries and cultures have enjoyed a long association with this style.

Braids were around during Medieval times and worn as adornments, but were also functional; they were often a means of keeping hair cleaner between baths, keeping it out of cooking fires, and more.

For Native Americans braids were primarily adornments (particularly for women and children), but could also specify religious observances, and when worn by men, were used by some tribes to denote preparation for war.

For many young Japanese today, the African American influenced, and wildly popular Hip-Hop culture extends to all aspects of life: music, dance, fashion and particularly hair fashion, which of course, includes braids.

Hair Braids From Traditional Native American to Japanese Hip-Hop Fashion

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In nearly every part of the world, from Africa to India to the U.S., at some point, hair braids have played a role in the cultural and fashion aesthetic.

Today, braids are not only a cultural tradition of people of African descent, but a major component of a pop culture that cuts across racial, economic, social and as we can see, geographical lines.

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Just Why are Hair Braids So Popular?

The reason for the tremendous surge in popularity in recent years are as varied as the individuals wearing the style.

Braided hair is unisex, universal and individually unique; since no two heads are alike, the variety of styles available are limited only by imagination. Braids may be worn as:

  • An occasional exotic hairstyle
  • A cultural statement
  • An attractive change of pace
  • Easy care style

A fortunate consequence of this unprecedented popularity among such a large and diverse public has made hair braiding a highly profitable business enterprise for those skilled in the art.

Man Braids a Sexy Option

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Let's face it, an attractive braided style on a man suggests an edgy, fashion-forward personality with a dash of devil-may-care on the side. Man braids definitely can separate an individual from the crowd ... and that, in most cases is a good thing.

To Wear or Not to Wear Braids; 6 Factors to Consider

It is a fact that braids have penetrated almost every segment of society, and the reasons for that are simple, and highly persuasive:

  • Versatile: There are numerous styles of braids, such as Cornrows, French Braids, Basket Braids and many others. As a hairstyle, what really knocks braids out of the park are the designer styles: a stylist can look at the shape of the face and/or head of a client, and custom create a style just for that individual. In this respect, braided hairstyles are limitless in their possibilities.
  • Long-Lasting: Braids can last from several weeks to several months depending on the style, and client requirements. The amount of time spent styling braids can range from a couple of hours to six or seven hours, however in the long run this can be a good investment in time because the style generally lasts so long.
  • Easy Care: Once in place, braids are "shampoo 'n go". Simply shampoo the scalp and rinse, coat braids with recommended oil and/or moisturizer and that's it until time for the next shampoo. There is a more stringent maintenance requirement recommended for certain braids, but the time and cost involved is still minimal.
  • Attractive: Braids are naturally suited to the curly texture of African hair, however anyone can wear braids attractively. Styles such as micro-braids (smaller sections of hair are used and smaller braids created), works especially well with fine, long hair and the good news is that there are practically endless variations on the micro style.
  • Inexpensive: Although the initial cost of getting braids may be expensive because of the time and expertise required, the professional upkeep required is little to none, therefore braids can still be quite cost effective.
  • Cultural Statement: Many Africans and African Americans who wear their hair in its natural state (not straightened with chemicals, or with heat), sometimes wear it that way as an expression of cultural/ancestral identity ... as it relates to their ancestors, and their roots in Africa.

Of course, while it's not necessary to wear natural hair to enjoy the benefits of a braided hairstyle, it may offer that added benefit of connecting with roots and the homeland, however the truth is ... any way you go with braids; curly hair or not, connecting to roots or not .... braids can be a win.

One Possible Down Side to the Popularity of Hair Braids

The one possible down side to the popularity of braids is that hair braiding transitioned from a cultural tradition handed down within families and tribes from generation to generation to being considered a regular business requiring a license and hours of what has been viewed as unnecessary training and study to certify.

Initially, there was plenty of dissent and discord regarding this requirement, but eventually everything settled down to the point that currently anyone with the interest and the skills to create beautiful art with hair has the ability to make a very artful living.

© 2018 Claudette Jones

Please share any stories on personal mishaps or mayhem associated with braids, as well as tips on styles and maintenance.

Claudette Jones (author) on July 02, 2018:

Thanks Susan, much appreciated. Although believe it or not, I don't often wear braids, I love them on others; an attractive option.

Susan SJ on July 02, 2018:

Wow! I love this article cause I personally love braiding my hair. Also, it’s really informative. Thanks for sharing, Claudette.