The evolution of cornrows

Jenessa Williams

One of the oldest hairstyles in history, cornrows and braids have overcome plenty in their journey towards increased understanding and acceptance

The ancient world

An illustration of Emperor Tewodros II (reigned 1855-1868) of Ethiopia wearing cornrows
Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868) of Ethiopia wearing cornrows

It is thought that traditional cornrows date back to at least 3000 BC Africa, the intricacy of the design relating back to the tribe that its wearer belonged to.

From Ghanaian "fishbone" braids to the box braids of South Africa that we’re so familiar with today, braid-style could also indicate marriage status, age or family lineage, a distinct art form of personal expression.

"Braids became popular amongst kings, warriors and other men of high status"

Taking anywhere between minutes and hours to achieve depending on the desired intricacy of the pattern and the texture of the wearer’s hair, they also became popular amongst kings, warriors and other men of high status.

 

16th – 19th century

propoganda portrait of slave women in which braided hair is evident
In this illustration of an industrial school established for former slaves in Richmond USA, braided styles are clearly visible. 

The term "cornrows" itself is thought to have originated somewhere between the sixteenth and nineteenth century, named for their neat, linear similarity to the agricultural fields that many black Africans and African-Americans worked in. In Caribbean diaspora, they are sometimes referred to as "canerows", linking back to work in the sugar cane fields.

"Cornrows were also thought to be used by slaves as a means of communicating in code"

During the age of slavery, it was commonplace for traffickers to shave the heads of black people before boarding the ship, robbing them of their braids and cultural identity. As their hair grew out, concerns about intricacy were no longer relevant—instead, slaves simply needed a simple management technique that could be easily prepared on a Sunday, thought to be a day of some reprieve from the constant abhorrent conditions.

To create a style that would last the week, braids were the best option, particularly for those who were allowed inside the plantation house and were subsequently expected to maintain a "tidy appearance".

Cornrows were also thought to be used by slaves as a means of communicating in code—a particular number of braids could be used to signal a meetup time or even indicate possible escape routes without drawing the scrutiny of slave masters. In some cases, seeds or fragments of gold could also be hidden in braids, offering the wearer some form of sustenance should they be able to escape.

 

19th – 20th century

Sarah Breedlove in a black and white portrait
A portrait of Madam C J Walker

As slavery ended, braids fell out of usage. Attempting to forge some semblance of a new life, many black people chose to distance themselves from any idea of "difference", seeking assimilation amongst white communities by adopting straightened or non-descript, slicked-back styles.

Sarah Breedlove—later known as Madam C J Walker—was born in 1867 on the same plantation in which her parents were enslaved, but became an immensely successful entrepreneur in the 19th century selling her Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower door-to-door, a scalp conditioning thought to predate what we now know of as "relaxer" treatments. 

Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower in original orange box
Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. From the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, IMCPL Digital Collections

The Black Power movement of the 60s and 70s heralded a joyous return to cornrow, reclaiming visible ancestry as an act of resistance.

Competing throughout the 80s with the perm, they gained another wealth of appeal in the 1990—young stars such as Brandy, Janet Jackson (below), Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keys wore theirs with pride at high profile events and music videos, challenging perceptions of what could be considered desirable when it came to hair.

Janet Jackson with braids

Often, braids on both male and female stars were adorned with intricate shells, beads and gold cuffs, just as they were for wealthy folk in the early African diaspora.

 

21st century

Beyonce during the Formation tour with her hair in an adorned braided style
Beyoncé rocks an adorned braided style while performing The Formation World Tour, 2016. Source: Rocbeyonce / CC BY-SA 

As beauty standards continue to improve, and we accept that there are many different ways for hair to be beautiful, more and more black people are stepping away from chemical straighteners and hot combs to return to a more "natural" style.

Thanks to its protective qualities, cornrows remain popular for all genders as a way of growing out relaxed hair, a visible sign of self-acceptance.

beyonce running hands through her braids

There is still a long way to go. Cornrows and braids still cause problems in schools and workplaces, carrying the racist stigma of unprofessionalism, rebelliousness or flamboyance in ways that are not policed at the same level amongst white students.

French braids, Dutch braids and Box braids have been picked up by retailers and stylists as a means to capitalise on the aesthetics of black "urban" culture while distancing from its history.

braids in the 21st century

For non-black wearers, it can be difficult to understand why a hairstyle might pose a problem of race. While nobody is telling white people that they can’t plait their hair, it is worth considering that braids are a style that has come to symbolise so much more than aesthetics—they are a symbol of heritage, of community and ultimately, of overcoming a type of struggle that non-black people are not able to fully relate to.

"Braids are a style that has come to symbolise so much more than aesthetics"

As NBA champion Kareem Addul Jabba explained for TIME magazine in 2015, “In general, when black people create something that is later adopted by white culture, white people tend to make a lot more money from it. Certainly, one can see why that's both annoying and disheartening… It feels an awful lot like slavery to have others profit from your efforts.”

a girl with braids smiles and laughs

Cultural appropriation can be a complicated topic, but the easiest way to think of it is to make sure that whatever style or fashion you adopt, you are aware of it’s history, recognise it’s social implications, and are prepared to vocally support the group from which the style is adopted. This approach extends to all types of expression—slang borrowed from LGBT+ communities, spiritual motifs from religious groups, and indeed, cornrows.

All styles have their story, and this one of legacy, freedom and self-acceptance deserves to be celebrated in all its intricate glory.

 

Further Reading: 

The Science of Black Hair: A Comprehensive Guide to Textured Hair Care by Audrey Davis-Sivasothy

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Ayana & Lori L. Tharps

Don’t Touch My Hair by Emma Dabiri

 

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