The ever-evolving world of beauty births new trends every day. It’s impossible to keep up with all the hairstyle fads that have come and gone throughout time. But one thing’s for sure—braids have been a staple style in the history of hair for what seems like forever. No, but really: The history of braids dates back to 3500 BC. In other words, they go way, way back. It’s safe to say the style has maintained a historical legacy that’s here to stay. From classic cornrows and simple three-strand braids to Dutch braids and more, this symbolic style has been a sign of societal status, ethnicity, religion, and more.
With the Instagram era, YouTube tutorials, runways, and popular music festivals, braids have evolved over time. We tapped three top hairstylists to take us through the backstory of braids. If you’re curious about the origin of braids, keep reading for a fun history lesson you’re actually going to want to pay attention to.
The Origin of Braids
Schwarzkopf celebrity hairstylist Larry Sims, who has worked with the likes of Gabrielle Union, Tracee Ellis Ross, Lupita Nyong’o, and more, traces the origins of braids back to African culture. “Braids have been impressionable throughout history,” says Sims. “The origin of braids can be traced back 5000 years in African culture to 3500 BC—they were very popular among women.”
Braids are not just a style; this craft is a form of art.
“Braiding started in Africa with the Himba people of Namibia,” says Alysa Pace of Bomane Salon. “These people have been braiding their hair for centuries. In many African tribes, braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe. Braid patterns and hairstyles were an indication of a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power, and religion. Braiding was and is a social art. Because of the amount of time it can take, people often would take the time to socialize. It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. Younger children would start practicing on each other and eventually learn the traditional styles. This tradition of bonding was carried on for generations and quickly made its way across the world. It was around the 1900s when braids became most popular around the world. Almost all women, children, and most men in some way had their hair braided.”
In relation to time periods, Pace credits Africa with cornrows in 3500 BC; Egypt with afro box braids in 3100 BC; Greece with the halo braid in the first century; Native Americans with pigtail braids in the fifth century; Europe with the crown braid from 1066 to 1485; China with the staircase braid from 1644 to 1912; the Caribbean with modern cornrows in the 1970s; and the internet (of course) with braid tutorials becoming especially popular in 2005 when YouTube launched.
According to Sims, cornrows with beads were very popular in the 1970s and box braids gained popularity in the 1990s.
“In my opinion, braids will never be out of the picture. They’re always going to be fashionable because they’re practical and chic,” says hairstylist Nunzio Saviano of Nunzio Saviano Salon.
The Evolution of Braids
“Expressions and styles have changed, but braiding patterns have remained the same,” says Sims. “In today’s culture, braids are adorned, worn, and praised in many different ways. Men and women who wouldn’t have worn them previously now embrace them. Women are approaching the braiding style in different ways. From clean lines to braids that are organic and messy. Women are taking on a fresh approach to coolness."
Saviano echoes the same statement regarding today’s braided styles. “In today’s society, we see messier and freer styles of braids that don’t have to be tight or perfect. People accept braids to look less perfect, chic, and more relaxed,” says Saviano.
“Box braids transformed in the modern world’s sense of community,” Sims continues. “Braiding studios located in African American communities such as Harlem are the perfect example. Getting your hair braided in this salon environment builds unity and embraces a historical culture."
The Cultural Context of Braids
"Braids are not just a style; this craft is a form of art," says Pace. “Women and men of all ages are getting their hair braided on a day-to-day basis. Whether it be a day you just want your hair out of your face or a special event filled with elegance, the art of hair braiding has evolved beyond the original cultural ideas.”
“Amongst African Americans, braids are go-to styles for women with natural textures,” explains Sims. "This style is used for kinkier textures as a form of protective styling—not just for fashion. Wearing braids protect natural hair from heat damage and humidity.”