Hairstyles come and go but braided hair is an ancient beauty technique with a long and literally winding history that roams across countries, cultures and centuries. Braids have made appearances on the heads of men and women throughout history, indicating everything from utility to glamor, social status to ethnicity, marital status to even religious affiliation.
In modern times, hairstyles aren’t quite so serious but one thing hasn’t changed: braids are cool. A quick internet search for braided hair will return millions of results. Since we all seem to love them, let’s take a look through the styles and meanings braids have taken on over the years and get some styling tips along the way!
Cornrows in Africa: Seen above, the ancient African cornrow dates back to 3500 BCE. In the 1950’s, a French ethnologist discovered a Stone Age rock painting in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara with a woman feeding her child wearing tight cornrows. The style of cornrow worn varied in complexity and often identified a person’s kinship, age, ethnicity, and even religion. Centuries later, in the 1970’s, this look becomes popularized again in America.
Ancient Egyptian Braids: Multiple braids with intricate embellishments were extremely common in ancient Egypt. Much like the “Cleopatra” look seen above, wealthy women were often seen with beautiful, beaded braids that, at times, had added extensions. Although ancient Egyptians had an aversion to body hair, head hair and beards were the exception. Since beards were seen as a symbol of divinity, it is no surprise that braids made an appearance on the faces of men as well. The “common” people wore simpler braids for practical purposes (keeping their hair out of their face while working.) Much like Africans, ancient Egyptians braided styles gave clues to the nature of the person – whether they were royal or common, Egyptian or foreign, etc.
Greek Goddess Braids: During the Flavian period (79-81 CE), the daughter of Roman Emperor Titus, Julia, created lavish up-dos consisting of wire frames, twisted braids and curls. These elaborate hairstyles eventually became popular amongst wealthy Roman women and became even more dramatic in later Roman periods. The more elaborate the style, the more it indicated a woman’s wealth and available leisure time.
Native American Braids: Native American hairstyles varied from tribe to tribe in style and cultural significance. In certain tribes, unwed women wore braids while married women wore their hair loose. In other tribes, men wore braids to prepare spiritually and physically for war. While the Mayans created large headdresses with braided elements, the Plains Indians wore simple, long braids parted down the center. Since Native culture was orally passed down, Native’s relationship to the braided hairstyle remains somewhat a mystery. But it remains almost synonymous with the image one has when they think of a Native American Indian.
Mongolian Braids: Mongolian braids began in the 13th century Mongol Empire as elaborate headpieces with braids hidden beneath or intertwined with each “wing” on each side of the head. These two “wings” were said to evoke mythical beasts – and similar hidden braided “wings” are created by Mongolian women even today.
The Modern Cornrow: In 1960’s and 1970’s America, a much-needed Black is Beautiful movement took place, empowering African Americans and encouraging them to embrace their cultural roots and natural beauty. Rather than using chemical straighteners and relaxers, it was more popular during this time to wear natural afros and cornrows like those in Africa so many centuries ago. Zig-zag braids, classic cornrows and micro braids became popular hairstyles and continue to be to this day.
Braids Get Internet Famous: When YouTube launched in 2005, braiding became an internet sensation. There are currently over one million braiding videos on YouTube for literally endless inspiration. Many of the braids worn by modern ladies like yourself take root in many places from people of many times past. If you’re feeling inspired, peruse the the gallery below for more ideas!
Is the braid the most timeless hairstyle of all? What do you think, Lovelies?