The Evolution of Our Hair is An Evolution of Our History: Part I

The Evolution of Our Hair is An Evolution of Our History: Part I

The story of the UK black hair style evolution is not just a story about hair dressing but a story about the History of African and Caribbean peoples in the UK. How our styles changed over the years was influenced by changes in our circumstance.

I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar/workshop at the Fitzwilliam Musem in Cambridge. This was ‘Roots to Relaxers’, which was part of the African Comb project which will be exhibited in the museum in 2013. The first speaker Sandra Gittens author of ‘Afro Caribbean Hairdressing’ took us through the history of black hair in the UK starting with Cleopatra and her braids to Little Richards’ Elvis inspiring quiff, to the Windrush era through to Mel B’s wild fro in the 90s and the most modern incarnation of black hair Nikki Manaj and her specific type of individuality. The second speaker June gave a presentation on our modern hair styles(weaves, relaxers, canerows), their pros an cons and our need for choice. She later lead a brief discussion with a group of teenagers that she had brought with her about how they wear their hair now. (See Part II)

This first presentation by Sandra Gitterns told a story that is very different to that of the our American peers. It was also not one of imitation of our white masters, but one of trend setters and style icons, with a very distinct sense of individuality. 

         Mary Seacole                      Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta               Windrush Exhibit Poster 

Starting as far back as Cleopatra who wore wigs and braids and moving through history to  black women using hair pieces to create plaits in the victorian era. During the WindRush era the Pressing Comb and many straightening apparatus became popular in the 50’s which created new and varied styles. Wigs and weave in the 60s became an easy way to wear our hair and this was often, due to damage from the harsh chemical relaxers of the time and also because of convenience, because the damp British air caused many straightened styles to revert to their natural state. 

   Bob Marley                                  Marsha Hunt
The evolution of the natural styles such an ‘the Afro’ and Dreadlocks  in 70s was the first time many felt proud of their naturally curly hair and for many not wanting to conform or 'imitate', this was a welcome change. They felt the need to say that they were black and proud, making this type of hair style seem like a very politically charged choice and to many still is today!

In more recent times the Curly Perm became popular in the 80s and was worn throughout. Asymmetrical cuts and colour featured in the 90‘s which can possibly be traced to hair dressing accidents and these styles were emulated by other races. 
Alexandra Burke                                   Mel B
We were then back to the Wigs and Weave in the late 90s and through the 00s another era of hair which has seen other races, wear their hair as black men and women do.The Natural Revolution seems to have taken hold now in the 10s along with the need to express ourselves as individuals and have choice about our hair styles.

I felt that that the story of our hair history and our history is in indeed very cyclical. A lot was changing and going on around us through the ages and to express ourselves it all seemed to come out through our hair. We have indeed come full circle with the way that we wear our hair and the way we feel about ourselves in British society and there is so much to be learnt about ourselves from our ancestors.

The African Comb Project
Fitzwilliam Museum 
This project is multi-disciplinary and will combine new archaeological, anthropological and sociological research with community engagement. It will trace over 5000 years of history of the African comb from the Pre-dynastic period of Egypt to the Twentieth century in UK and US, and will include oral histories and personal testimonies that will document attitudes towards hair and grooming in the present day.

Please contact 01223 332904 or email

Sandra Grittens @ the African Comb Seminars.

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