A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Finger Waves

finger waves

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Finger waves are a classic. Before we get into the how-to of the sleek, S-shaped style, it's time for a quick history lesson: Finger waves are synonymous with the 1920s. One of my most prominent memories of when my mom taught me about the '20s is the black-and-white photograph of Josephine Baker, a celebrated singer and dancer and the first Black entertainer to star in a motion picture. Not only was she a beauty and style icon, but she was also a civil rights activist who was known for refusing to perform at segregated clubs in the United States. 

Finger Waves Josephine Baker

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The style remained popular until the '30s and later re-emerged in the '90s, with stars like Missy Elliott, Lil' Kim, Halle Berry, and Nia Long wearing the sleek 'do on red carpets, in music videos, and on film.

Finger Waves Missy Elliott

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Now that you have some historical context, let's get into how we can create this look at home. You may have to dedicate some time to practice your technique, but we think you'll be a pro in no time.

One thing to note about this style is it typically works best on hair that is relaxed, fine-textured, or of a looser curl pattern, and on straight cropped hair. However, there are always exceptions to the rules, as you can see with these upgraded space buns styled by Nikki Nelms on Janelle Monáe, or the cornrowed finger waves Kim Kimble created for Beyoncé.

Finger Waves Janelle Monae

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Finger Waves Beyonce

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What You'll Need

Before you start to style your hair, you'll want to make sure you have a few things: mousse, a small-tooth rat-tail comb, styling strips, and a hooded hair dryer. The hooded dryer is optional, but if you're looking to set your hair in place quickly (and prevent frizz), I recommend using one.

Mousse Def Texture Foam
The Doux Mousse Def Texture Foam $15.00
Wrapp-It Black Styling Strips
Graham Professional Beauty Wrapp-It Black Styling Strips $5.00

For a full visual, this video filmed by Roxy Bennett thoughtfully walks you through each step of her process.

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Start With Freshly Washed Hair

Finger Waves Roxy Bennett


Wash and condition your hair to ensure you have the best foundation to help easily mold your hair into an S-shape with the help of your fingers and the small-tooth comb.

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Mousse Will Be Your Best Friend

Mousse is a sleek hairstyle MVP, especially when sculpting. Gel can work for some sleek hairstyles, specifically if you're slicking back a ponytail, but it can't hurt to experiment with what works best for your hair type. Before you start shaping your hair, cover your entire head with a good blanket of mousse so you have enough slip to make your waves without tangling or snagging your hair. You may need to reapply as you go, but your hair will usually let you know when it's time to layer more product.

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Mold Your Hair

Use your comb to make an S-shape while placing one (or even two) fingers where you're making the groove to keep the hair in place. If reading this makes it sound complicated, here's another video by Nailah, who is finger-waving her natural coils. She used Eco Styler to slick her curls down and followed up with mousse.

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Finger Waves Rihanna

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Setting the hair is essential to ensuring your finger wave results are sleek sans the frizz. Depending on your hair type, you could air-dry (but setting the hair under a dryer is always the way to go in my opinion). If you're going to air-dry, be sure to not only use the styling strips, but layer them with a silk scarf for extra security. If you plan to set under the dryer, wrap the styling strips around your hair, grab a book, and sit tight. The length you'll need to sit under the dryer depends on your hair's thickness and length. Be sure to check the inside of your waves, because sometimes just checking the exterior of a style for moisture is misleading.

After you're all set (pun intended), don't be afraid to put on a bold lip or even embellish the look you just worked so hard to create.

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