For me, something I wear often is my hair — particular my crochet braided hair. Braiding in various forms has existed for millennia, and the African tradition of braiding tight, curly hair close to the head in intricate patterns (a.ka. “cornrows’) has existed at least since 3500 BC (but most likely before then). In ancient times, the style of one’s cornrows could indicate someone’s socioeconomic status, religion, tribe, and more.
Based on a Stone Age rock painting in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara with a woman feeding her child wearing tight cornrows.
African braiding traditions were taken to the United States via chattel slavery, resulting in a power dynamic through hair that has underscored Black style ever since. Though practical and beautiful, cornrows and the natural Black hair texture in general were (and in many cases still are — see incidents of jobs, schools, and the military discriminating against Black woman for their hairstyles and classifying them as “unkempt” or “unprofessional”) associated with being dirty or uncivilized; through internalized and externalized racism, Black women over the years found various ways to try to straighten their hair to assimilate to the White majority’s hair texture. In 1905, Madame CJ Walker invented a series of products that allowed Black women to easily straighten and manage their hair; the fact that she became the first Black woman millionaire in America demonstrates the voracious need for Black women across the nation to “tame” their kinky curls. In keeping with this trend of masking natural textures, in the 1950s, Christina Jenkins invented the moden “hair weave” process. Though hair extensions in various forms (e.g. gluing animal fur to strands of hair) have existed in human culture around as long as braiding has, the modern weave uses cornrows as a base for a long lasting style. Women were now able to have straight hair without damaging their own. Even though people wear both curly and straight weaves nowadays, weaves are extremely expensive; one has to spend hundreds of dollars on the right hair so it lasts long enough (usually 1-3 months), and another couple hundred on the right hair stylist to make sure the style is done in a natural way. Don’t forget about the products and implements needed to maintain the hair once you leave the hair salon!
In the 70s there blossomed a movement in the Black community; afros, cornrows, and other “natural” hairstyles abounded, and we are seeing a similar moment in contemporary Black culture today. Despite the 70s movement, many Black girls in my generation still grew up with our mothers, aunties, and grandmothers constantly straightening or relaxing our hair. Self-esteem issues abounded when despite best efforts, our hair still didn’t look like the other girls with naturally straight hair, and frustration arose as our hair became more and more damaged and lifeless with the constant strain. In the past few years, the “crochet braid” has risen as an effective “protective style” (meaning a hairstyle you can wear while your hair recovers from heat or chemical damage, if you want your hair to grow, or if you just don’t want to do anything to your own hair).
Nobody seems to know who invented crochet braiding, however it distinguishes itself from other forms of braiding through its “latch hook” method. Once the natural hair is cornrowed in a certain circular pattern around the head, allowing straight cornrows for parts and any other designations the person wants, the additional extension is threaded through a latch hook tool and literally crochet’ed into the braid. It’s easy, simple (I even taught myself how to do it through a YouTube tutorial) , and affordable!
Latch hooks can be bought for less than 2$, and a pack of hair (usually called a “bundle”) can cost anywhere from $3 – $15 each. The number of bundles one must buy depends on how much hair they have, how large their scalp is, and how voluminous they want the style (I have really thick hair and prefer more voluminous styles, so I use about 4-5 bundles, many people use about 2.5 – 3).
Though often used for curly hairstyles, crochet braiding has exploded into other styles such as faux goddess locs, large braids, and more! What is constant is that one can have a beautiful style without damaging their hair at a price that does not break the bank.
Hair has always been an artform, particularly in the Black community; the current trend of embracing one’s versatility and texture through crochet braiding give us the protection we need without sacrificing appreciation for our roots.
Pictures of me with crochet hair below: