African American hairstyle history

If you know about African American hairstyle history, then you know why, as an African American, we style and treat our hair as we do. The black hairstyle history and techniques originated in Africa. The story of African American hairstyles is as long as the first African slaves were brought to the New World in the early seventeenth century.  A lot has changed since that time, and a lot has stayed the same.  Today, there is an interest not only in the historical roots of many African American hairstyles, but also in a myriad of new ways to style black hair.  Because the original Africans brought to the United States came from all over West and Central Africa there is no one origin that African American hairstyles can be traced.  Instead, there is a general pan-African style that has developed into a range of African American styles.  Today, we can look at the African American hairstyle history to see the full range of hairstyles that inspired and helped formulate the styles that are available to people with textured hair.



The first African hairstyles that were seen in the New World were variations of traditional West African braiding patterns.  These styles, however, were often removed by masters who wanted their slaves to look more European.  For the next three hundred years or so, standards of black beauty were measured by European standards.  Light skin, small features, and straight hair were what were set as the highest form of beauty.  That meant that African Americans would spend a lot of time working on their hair to make it mimic white hair using chemical treatments, heat styling, and lots of styling products.

1920s Flapper Hairstyle - Photo Source:

1944 Pin up girls
1944 Pin up girls hairstyle – Photo Source:

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1956 NAACP Models

1956 NAACP Banquet and Fashion Show Models - Photo Source:

This trend continued up until the nineteen sixties and seventies.  At this time the civil rights movement also inspired a cultural movement popularly known as “black is beautiful”.  It urged black men and women to embrace their heritage and leave their hair natural.  This is when the Afro was first popularized in mass, a huge mane of hair that was teased up to emphasize its curliness.  Afros are still seen today, though usually on a smaller scale, but recently since around 2008, is growing as more people are exploring their natural hair.  During this growth of embracing Afro-textures, in the 70s, traditional braiding patterns were also brought back to African American hair.

Afro Hairstyles

1970s Afro - Beach Party - Photo Source:

Today you will see a wide variety of African American hairstyles.  Some people use West African braiding patterns for cornrows or adopt a Caribbean style of dreadlocks.  Other people leave their hair natural in a smaller Afro.  You’ll also find, in the past and today, people who wear jheri curls, straight hair styles, pin curls, etc. And with the popularity of hair extensions (weaves) and wigs, the styles are endless. The Afro-textured hairstyle history is rich and its heritage is reflected in the rainbow of hairstyles you’ll see on African Americans.

Jheri curl hairstyle

Jheri curl - Super Curl ad, circa 1980’s.

braids with beads

Singer Patrice Rushen (1982) braids with beads

Read more about: African American Hair History