Hair as heritage series: Hair Shows Social Status

Hair as Heritage Series: Hair Shows Social Status

Whether you rock your natural hair out or under a weave or wig, any woman will tell you the world treats you differently depending on your hairstyle. That’s because our hair represents something greater than just the curls, coils or cornrows under those wigs. Our hair shows culture and customs, and it has history – and heritage.
While we grew up getting our hair braided at home, and new takes on old classics are common, braiding, as we know it today, can be traced as far back as 3500 BCE . Wigmaking was also common across the continent and a sarcophagus of Princess Kawit in Egypt that dates back to 2050 BC shows an engraving of her hair getting her wig styled by a servant – glam squads were even around in ancient Egypt ! As Africans, we’re not new to styling our tresses, we’re true to it.

These various styles were not only common across the continent thousands of years ago, but they also represented far more than just the trendy styles of the time. Whether in braids, cornrows, wigs or extensions using human hair, wool or other fibres, the hairstyles worn by our ancestors represented their status and standing within society. You could tell everything from someone’s marital status, whether they were royalty or nobility, or a regular person on the street, all by how they wore their hair.

Hair: The Ultimate Status Symbol


Ayana Byrd and Lori Tharps write in their popular book Hair Story: Untangling the roots of Black Hair in America that, for different tribes and ethnic groups, hair was an important signifier within various African societies. Hair was a marker of everything from a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth, and rank within the community: ‘The one constant Africans share when it comes to hair is the social and cultural significance intrinsic to each beautiful strand.’
What makes our coils and curls special and unique as Africans is that it can be sculpted and shaped into different forms, which helped different ethnic groups create messages using their hair. This was especially common in West African ethnic groups such as the Wolof, Mende, Mandingo, and Yoruba . Everything from fertility – indicated by thick, long hair – to mourning – hair was shorn or kept in plain short styles – was indicated by our ancestors’ styles.

Hair Showed You Were Married


From the north to the south of the continent, for women, hair has always been a symbol of marital status and fertility. For centuries, it was common for young girls to shave their heads or wear simple styles to show that they were not yet of marriageable age .

Often, a change in their hairstyle indicated that they were now ready for marriage. In what is now Namibia, in the Himba tribe, known for their dreadlocks made using ground ochre and butter, young women tied their dreadlocks away from their faces to show that they were interested in coupling up. Once married, they wore Erembe headdresses made using animal skin .
According to the Encyclopedia of Hair , young Ibo girls in what is now Nigeria used clay and palm oil to create horn shapes using their hair, while girls in Senegal were allowed to wear their hair in fun braided styles. Covered and conservative styles were preserved for married women.

In South Africa, this concept is not new. Married Zulu women traditionally wear a hat, known as Isicholo, to indicate marital status. But, Isicholo didn’t start out as a hat, but rather a hairstyle. Married Zulu women would wear their hair moulded into this shape. It was only as recent as the 1800s that Zulu women started wearing hats that imitated this hairstyle, instead of rocking the style itself.
In Nigeria, wives in polygamous marriages even had a style called kohin-sorogun, meaning “turn your back to the jealous rival wife,” that had a pattern woven into it to taunt the other wives in the marriage.

Hair Showed ‘Who’ You Were

While we might not pay attention to it, even today our hair is seen as a status symbol: think about how you imagine the bank balance of someone wearing a 26-inch lace front wig versus the bank balance of someone with a simple cornrowed style. Historically, the same rules applied. In some regions, all community leaders and priests wore intricate hairstyles, but only the leader could wear an elaborate headdress. In ancient Egypt, there were laws against certain classes wearing wigs, which were meant for royalty and nobility.
For many societies, special classes of people had special hairstyles. Warriors in the West African Wolof tribe often wore braids when they went into battle . Masai warriors in East Africa did the same thing but dyed their braids with red clay.

Hair Showed You Were All Grown Up


Moving from puberty into adulthood was also a common way to show different hairstyles across the continent. For the Himba of Namibia, teenage girls wore braids or dreadlocks that hang over their faces to show that they’ve entered puberty . While ‘Fulani braids’ have been considered ‘trendy’, they originate from the Fulani tribe of West Africa. Traditionally, Fulani women wore five long braids styled into loops or hung loose. Within this tribe, young women’s braids are often decorated with the family’s silver or amber to showcase her heritage .

‘Across the African continent, techniques for dressing hair were as varied as the hairstyles that they produced,’ writes Professor Hlonipha Mokoena of Wits in ‘If Black Girls Had Long Hair’ . Grooming and hairstyling, she writes, is as much an African ‘artefact’ as our archaeology, buildings, artworks and historical sites. Because our hair said – and still says – so much about society, it can never be ‘just hair’. History is woven deeply into our strands.