Hair History: A Look Back at Centuries of Braids
Whether you favour French or Dutch, fishtail or mermaid, there is something so classically chic and historically relevant about the braid. A style that has evolved through the ages and played a major role in the history of hair; we’re taking you from past to present with braids 101.
Traditional African BraidsLet’s go back to the beginning, shall we? Some of the earliest knotted locks can be traced back nearly 30,000 years to African tribes; where the cultural significance was as diverse as the many styles of braid used to represent various groups and regions. Much like fashion in history has long since been an indicator of traits such as social status, wealth and religion; braids could be the identifier of a person’s age, marital status, wealth or position.
At this time, one of the more popular styles of braid was the cornrow, sometimes done in a more generic fashion and other times seen in a more complex geometric style - something determined by the individual’s status and age, among other factors.
Recent history however, has made claim that the oldest known image of braiding was in fact discovered along the Nile River, by an ancient burial site known as Saqqara.
Still a staple for women and men alike; you can find homage to the iconic style here on red carpet favorite, Zendaya.
Taking Cues From CleopatraIt should come as no surprise that ancient Egyptians had a heavy hand in hair styling through the ages. Women and men alike would adorn their intricately woven strands with beads, jewels--even adding extensions-- which goes to show just how far back our love for voluminous locks really goes.
There was major function to their fashion, however, as braided styles were a necessity for both keeping cool in the blazing desert heat and giving pesky lice one less scalp on which to burrow and nest.
And in case you thought we might be the first to harbor an appreciation for beards on our guys – think again. Facial hair may have been off-limits, but it appears beards in particular--braided and all--were given the green light as a sign of divinity. Finally proof of historical hipsters.
Got it From the Greek!The Roman Empire took their class system very seriously, and few points of style were as indicative of a woman’s place in society as her hair. Basically, the higher in the hierarchy you sat, the longer your hair. Servants and slaves kept their locks in short, cropped 'dos, while women of leisure let theirs grow long-- showcasing their telling tresses in braids, twists and trendy styles intended to highlight just where they held rank.
Today, few styles are considered quite as chic and feminine as the tossled Grecian-inspired updo. Usually styled as an intentionally messy swept-up chignon or twist, with pieces strategically pulled loose, and of course-- delicate braids added throughout.
Native TerritoryThe Native American tribes who set the stage for a hairstyle so synonymous with their culture would argue that this hair trend was more about substance and less about style. Culturally significant plaits reigned supreme among the more than 500 tribes whose female and male members wore their hair in braids that both told a story and made a statement.
In some tribes, men would style their braids to help in their physical and spiritual preparedness for battle. In others, women who were unwed might wear their hair in braids while married women of the tribe would leave their hair loose.
In present day, the classic simple braid is a staple in almost every woman’s arsenal of go-to looks. Effortless is an understatement here, and clearly, this look has stood the test of time. Candice Swanepool and Taylor Swift are big fans of the look, but we’re giving this one to RiRi, who seems to make even a simple braid look ultra chic.
A Cue from the Celts and VikingsGoing back--way back--25 centuries or so, the ancient Celts were certified members of the braid brigade, with both men and women taking part in making the style all their own. Women’s hair was generally worn long, with those of the higher class using accessories like metal-based ornaments and ribbons to decorate their elaborate braids.
Of the Viking culture, young unmarried women were the most likely to be seen sporting long, loose hair often styled in braids.
Showing us how it’s done is Katherine Winnick as Lagertha on the set of Vikings. See her sport the style as the show returns for its fourth season starting February 18th on History, Thursdays at 10 E/P.
Middle Ages ModestyThe high and middle ages of Europe saw tamed and covered locks as the style of survival in a time where a lack of modesty could see you accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. So severe was the social pressure to maintain a subdued and virtuous appearance that popular braids of the time like the braided crown, fishtail and double-braided bun were more often than not sported beneath a muted headpiece.
Today, women are rocking their braided crowns proudly--all that work to cover it up? NEVER! Some of our favorite medieval rebels include Jessica Alba, Charlize Theron and queen of the modern-day braided crown herself, Sienna Miller.
Mongolian ManesA quick skim through the 13th-century style files of Mongolian fashion is enough to tell you that the Mongol Empire had little room for wallflowers. A clear influencer of modern-day fashion, the style sense of the times was nothing less than fierce. Braids were not showcased but very discretely incorporated into elaborate headpieces to help in creating the illusion of prized long hair.
Outside of Lady Gaga, few modern day style mavens are brave enough to take on some of the more extreme fashions inspired by the noblewomen of the Mongolian Empire. We do, however, have it on good authority that Queen Amidala may have pulled some inspiration from the brave trailblazers, as seen in the Star Wars movies.
The Chinese Queue BraidSorry ladies, this one’s for the boys. China’s final dynasty gave rise to the Queue braid, a style that involved shaving off most of one’s hair and pulling the rest into a long plait. Non-comformity was considered treason, punishable by death.
On a lighter note--the man-braid has had a major comeback as of late, and we love to see hunks like Harry Styles, David Beckham and Jared Leto getting in on the action. The man-braid is the new man-bun, naturally.
Box Braids of the '90sEverything old is new again, and the modern cornrow in the box braid style took over the '90s like TLC took over the airwaves. The throwback took hairstyling back to its roots and was showcased on some of the most famous faces of the time. Brandy Norwood, Jada Pinkett and Lauryn Hill were all proudly brandishing their braids, with one of the most iconic faces of the time to wear the style being Janet Jackson, who set fire to the style in the '90s film Poetic Justice.
The Future of the BraidIn 2005, YouTube was launched, and hair styling tutorials of all kinds began to flood the Internet. Fast-forward to present day and there are more than one million YouTube videos on the subject of braiding, and countless other sources for inspiration (including this amazing behind-the-scenes video from Vikings).
Whether you’re pulling from past styles, rocking present trends or looking to create the next big thing in braids; one thing is certain: the plait is one style with ultimate staying power.