Curls, cabbies and catwalks: Afro hair and the fashion industry

Isabel Adomakoh Young 1 November 2014

Black hair, especially black women’s hair, is a political phenomenon wherever you find it: just picture Oprah Winfrey on the cover of O Magazine last year with 3.5lbs of afro extensions tied to her (no doubt aching) scalp, or consider the Namibian ‘Himba’ tribe, for whom extravagant hairstyles denote status.

Personally my hair has brought me a lot of attention, both pleasant and utterly unwanted, since I let it out into an afro. This has ranged from the expected, like Asian tourists asking for pictures, to the less expected: a white cockney cabbie congratulating a 13-year old me for my black lib politics as he drove me to my grandma’s house. I stopped going out for air at clubs for a while because I was so bored of drunken fools trying to touch my head without so much as a ‘hello’.

Natural afro hair has been an iconic symbol since the seventies, the days of black power and the Civil Rights Movement. However, while it seems to have seen something of a renaissance in the noughties, it’s far less clear what it stands for nowadays.

In the world of fashion, it’s become primarily an aesthetic feature, appropriated as just another option by catwalks seeking ‘architectural’ ‘bold’ or ‘dramatic’ shapes; these statements are about as meaningful as Doc Martens’ “Stand for Something”. Some people seem to have entirely forgotten afro hair’s ethnic and politcal origins.

Think of the time when Claudia Schiffer blacked up and donned an afro wig for Karl Lagerfeld, or when Ondria Hardin, a 16-year- old, blond-haired, blue-eyed model, was shot for NumeĢro with her skin darkened as an ‘African Queen’. If you want to put yourself through it, #WorstFashionShootEver, curated by Tansy Hoskins, compiles some of the industry’s most offensive and ill-considered shoots.

But all of that is only the icing on the racism-in-fashion cake. What makes it all so ironic is that real live black models are still being sidelined and rejected, denied jobs on the basis of “we already have a black girl”, or “it’s not the aesthetic we’re looking for”. A quick flick through the last 15 years of Vogue covers yields only five solo black covers – two of them Naomi Campbell – and absolutely none with natural hair.

When we take this into account, shows like Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton SS08, in which a parade of white girls in inexplicably large afro wigs made headlines for its “ghetto fabulous” look (don’t get me started), elicit a bitter laugh at best, and real wrath when reconsidered.

More exposure to women like Solange Knowles and Alek Wek owning the natural look, and FKA Twigs sporting baby hair edges, can only be encouraging to young women of colour looking for themselves in the pages of magazines. The fashion world truly appreciating and embracing will help a whole generation of young women realise you don’t have to trim, weave, or even ‘fight the frizz’ if you don’t want to.