Braiding Hair Styles In the African American Culture




Hair braiding is a cultural art and skill handed down through the generations that originated as far back as 3,500 B.C. in Egypt. In African countries, and many islands as well, intricate patterns of braiding developed first as a tribal identification, but then evolved into signs of the wearer’s age, village, occupation, and social status. Certain patterns were designated for ceremonies and rites of passage like marriage or childbirth. Unmarried women wore different braid styles than married women and a pregnant woman would change her braids to signify the impending birth. The more important or significant the person, the more intricate the braided pattern would be.

Not only did the braids themselves have social and personal significance, but the actual braiding was also a ritual performed among families and friends. Because some styles can take many hours to create, getting together to braid is the ultimate act of bonding and kinship as well as taking pride in the skill involved.

Generally, braiding is the practice of taking three or more small sections of hair and interweaving them to create a plait, but it has evolved way beyond the simplicity of the three-strand plait. Because of the traditional appeal and its versatility, braiding can take on countless incarnations and styles that are popular today from long lengths to highly-designed up-dos and everything in between. There is also weaving, twisting, wrapping and locks … like dreadlocks. The ancient and traditional ways are still handed down from generation to generation and are still being taught both in beauty schools worldwide and online, so always ask about the training and technique when looking for a new braidery.

Why modern women love braids

Modern African American women have many different reasons for wearing braided styles. While many women wear braided styles to celebrate their cultural heritage, another important aspect of modern-day braiding as that it also embraces an African American Woman’s ‘natural’ hair texture. Braiding is seen as the ‘natural’ hairstyling choice and African American women who choose NOT to straighten or style their hair with chemicals or heat will often gravitate to this type of curly or natural hairstyling option. It becomes a style issue…one of self esteem also. “I had a client once who wore a beautiful braid pattern for years and years…it was her ‘signature style.’ She came to me because her hair was thinning at the roots and she was absolutely devastated when I had to tell her that her signature style was causing her Traction Alopecia and that we’d have to find her a new signature style …” says Diahna Husbands, a hair replacement specialist and owner of Diahna Lynn Hair Studio in Maryland.

Another reason braids are so popular is that they are very low-maintenance. According to Milady’s Standard Cosmetology, “These hairstyles are NOT disposable … a well-braided style can last for up to three months with proper care and maintenance.” Many African American Hairstylists also attest to the fact that braids are a great way to grow out a hairstyle, when braided gently. “That’s because keeping hair in a braid avoids the usual daily friction on the hair shaft of washing and brushing while the hair grows,” explains Husbands. Braided styles nowadays are worn by both men and women universally, another upside to the style.
Want to bring braiding beyond fashion? Check out Hairtalk: Stylish Braids from African Roots by Duyan James (Sterling Publishing, 2007) as she elaborates on 51 unique, braided styles for men, women, and children along with how-to’s and the explanations of the cultural significance of each style. After all a braidery is more than just a place to get braids done – it’s a place where the past and the present come together beautifully!