Young girls with their hair in dreadlocks

Anthropology: Hairstyles and Their Cultural Significance

Hairstyles vary throughout history and different cultures. Much like everything else, the significance of hair started from evolution. Back then, hair was for warmth, protection and sometimes even for camouflage. Over the years, it has evolved into a signifier of beauty, political status, religion, gender, race, culture or particular community group. Much like our language, accent, clothes or facial features, our hairstyles speaks volumes of who we are. The way we style or adorn our hair gives others a glimpse into our culture- be it the colourful flowers in India, the red ochre dye in Africa, rainforest ingredients in Brazil or the intricate hair ornaments in Japan. Part of the tradition and culture passed down from generation to generation are the rituals and significance revolving around hair.

As like everything else under the sun, hair symbolism has been the subject of extensive research by anthropologists. In many non- Western cultures, hair is considered as the seat of the soul and has special powers that remain even after the hair is cut. Some even believe a permanent link exists between the person and their chopped- off hair, and whoever gains possession of the hair can control the person. In other cultures, hair plays a central role in initiation and marriage ceremonies, magic rituals, mourning ceremonies and rites of passage. Communities that believe in the magical powers of amulets and charms used hair to create rain charms and for medical treatments. In the present day, hair is mostly a symbol of self- a reflection of who we are.

Here, I have explored what hair and different hairstyles mean in six different cultures.

Cornrows of Africans

A woman with cornrows
credit@ Pinterest

For cornrows, the hair is braided extremely close to the scalp by an underhand, upward motion to create a continuous raised row. In the Caribbean, they are known as canerrows and can be styled in either straight lines, curved patterns or intricate geometric patterns. Contrary to some beliefs, cornrows aren’t a modern trend. Their history dates back to 3000 BCE in numerous cultures of West Africa and the Horn of Africa. The earliest documentation of cornrows can be seen in the Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara. More recently, cornrows were a powerful symbol and tool of resistance against bondage and slavery.

Different styles of cornrows employed during slavery
credit@ ED Times

During the Middle Passage, millions of Africans were enslaved, chained and transported across the Atlantic to America. Stating the reason for sanitation, they were forced to shave their heads, but now it is seen as an act to strip them of their identity and culture. But not everyone stooped to the colonials’ orders. Many slaves grew out their hair again to braid it into cornrows. This was the Africans’ way of rebelling and resisting the colonials and reclaiming their cultural identity. Apart from this, cornrows were also cleverly used for communication and for creating maps to plan their escape from the estates of the colonials. This was especially the case in South America.

In Colombia, when slavery was rampant, messages were relayed through hair braiding. Various styles depicted various messages. Departes with thick and tight braids signalled the desire to escape, while curved braids were used to denote escape routes and roads. Braiding hair into cornrows was an effective and fool-proof method for the slaves to avoid being caught with their plans. Hence, over the years, cornrows have served as a testimony to the resilience, strength and ingenuity of African- Americans. It is a reminder that hairstyles are a lot more than a fashion statement.

Today, cornrows are worn throughout Africa, the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) and Sudan, denoting one’s religious beliefs, age, marital status, kinship and wealth. They are also used as a form of self- expression. To adorn their cornrows and to add personality to their hair, women and men use glass, corals, shells, fresh flowers and twigs.

Dreadlocks of the Himba Tribe

Dreadlocks are rope-like strands made by locking or braiding the hair. This style is ancient in time and, contrary to the popular belief, not just used in African cultures. Records show that they were popular in ancient Greece, India and Egypt, dating back to 1500 BCE.

While dreadlocks are popular across cultures, their most unique and striking use is seen amongst the women of the Himba Tribe. They are a group of indigenous people living in the Kunene Region of northern Namibia. Both their skin and dreadlocks will be coated with ‘otjize,’ a red- tinged paste made by mixing animal fat, the aromatic resin of the omazumba shrub, and powdered ochre pigment stone. The paste serves the role of protecting both their skin and hair from the harsh hot and arid weather of the desert and for aesthetic purposes as well. The colour is also a representation of the colour of blood and earth- both essences of life.

Young girls with their hair in dreadlocks
credit@ Medium

In the Himba community, hair plays a significant role right from birth. The hairstyle employed by women denotes their marital status, age, rank and wealth. The thickness of the hair is also an indication of the woman’s fertility. For the newly born babies, their hair is almost completely shaved off, leaving just a tiny tuft of it on the crown of their head. For boys, as they grow older, their hair is braided into a single plait. On the other hand, girls braid their hair into two plaits, leaving it hanging in front of their face. Once marriageable age is attained, the girl wears a headdress called the Ekori, which is made from tanned goatskin. The dreadlocks of the woman are also tied back, revealing her face. For those women who have been married for a year, Erembe, a headdress of intricate design and made from goatskin is worn. Besides the headdress, the strands are coated with the otjize paste to create the iconic dreadlocks. Artificial extensions of hair are also made using goat hair or hay. For men, those who are single braid their hair into a single braid at the back of their head to denote their unmarried status, while married men use cloth turbans to keep their heads covered. Married men never reveal their hair in public, except for attending funerals.

 Mohawk of Indigenous Native Americans

Mohawk of the Pawnee warrior
credit@ Pinterest

The Mohawk hairstyle is also known as Mohican in popular culture. Today, it is a hairstyle that has some to represent rebellion and non- conformity. In actuality, the punk rock subculture overshadows the hairstyle’s true history. Presently, the Mohawk consists of a strip of either spiked or non- spiked hair along the middle of the head. The sides would be shaved off. But the original style of the Mohawk was a square patch of hair on the back of the head, and that too, the style wasn’t made by shaving- the hair was plucked off.

The Mohawk today
credit@ Pinterest

It was the Native American Pawnee and the Iroquois people (an indigenous confederacy in northeast North America) who primarily used the Mohawk hairstyle. The hairstyle is named after the Mohawk Nation, which is one of the Six Nations confederates where the Iroquois language is spoken. The young warrior men of the community who were responsible for protecting the tribe wore the Mohawk. Although it was common for anyone in the Pawnee people to wear their hair in this style, it was disrespectful of anyone else of the Iroquois tribe other than the warrior men to wear it. Amongst the Pawnee tribe, the warriors also wore an additional headdress known as the roach headdress. This headdress was attached to a scalp lock (a single lock of long hair). The hair of the roach was stiffened with fat and paint to make the headdress stand erect on the head. The headdress, dyed red and adorned with feathers, shells and arrows, was usually made with porcupine hair, moose hair, black turkey beard and the hair from the tail of white deer. For these communities, the Mohawk was a proud symbol of bravery and strength. Today, while people use this hairstyle to sport a rebellious look, the original truth of the indigenous tribes is lost.

Queue braids of the Han Chinese

Queue braid of a Han Chinese man
credit@ DICOTD

During the medieval ages in China, hairstyles were an important aspect of reflecting an individual’s affiliation to a dynasty or tribal community. In China, the queue hairstyle consists of shaving the front portion of the head every ten days. The remaining part of the hair is allowed to grow and it is braided at the back.

It was the Manchu people (an ethnic minority in Manchuria in Northeast China) who brought the hairstyle to mainland China at the time when they invaded the Ming Dynasty, captured Beijing and established the Qing Dynasty. The Qing rule lasted from 1644 until 1912, during which all the Han Chinese men were forced to wear their hair in the queue style to signify their submission to the Manchurian rulers. The order was met with rebellion, leading to resistance and protests to erupt in the country. For the Han Chinese men, their life centred on Confucius’s philosophy, who said, ‘We are given our body, skin and hair from our parents, which we ought not to damage. This idea is the quintessence of filial duty.’ Moreover, shaving part of their hair meant giving up or losing their culture and identifying and following a new national cultural identity of the Manchurians.

The Manchurian ruler stated that if the men did not follow the order within ten days, a Queue Order would be enforced, meaning that the refusal to conform to the hairstyle was an act of reason and would be punished with execution. A majority of the Han Chinese men didn’t have an issue with braiding their hair, but they absolutely refused to shave the rest of their hair. Hence, growing the hair in the front portion of the head came to be a sign of protest. For the Manchurians, shaving the hair rather than braiding was the main signifier of loyalty towards the new government, and hence it was implemented even more strictly as protests broke out. Hence, hair became a trigger for political rebellion and uprising.

The queue hairstyle in present times
credit@ Exequy’s Blog

Over the years, the Han Chinese men were forced to give in to the order. During the eighteenth century, even Chinese immigrants in the United States had to keep up their hairstyles to prevent the Chinese government from profiling them as revolutionaries. The hairstyle led to the stereotyping of the Chinese by Europeans and White Americans, who were ignorant of its history.

Nihongami of the Japanese

Nihongami of Geishas
credit@ Tokyo Weekender

The literal translation of the word ‘Nihongami’ means ‘Japanese hair.’ Today, it is an umbrella term that covers a wide range of Japanese hairstyles, each with distinctive roles and styles in society. In earlier times, it was mostly associated with geishas.

The Nihongami style consists of two wings at the side of the head, which curve upwards towards the back of the head, forming a ponytail or a topknot. Below this, a long loop of hair is drawn into the topknot. The hairstyle was most popular during the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) and was known as the golden age of the nihongami. During this period, many intricate variations were used, which featured buns and wings, leading to the hairstyle becoming a trend. The styles varied according to the woman’s social status, age and occupation. Girls in their late teens wore the shimada (similar to a chignon, the hair is gathered together at the crown of the head and a small portion of the bun is sectioned off to point outward), newly married women wore the sakkō (a high bun with a cloth tied underneath and a string of beads tied on top) while brides wore the takashimada (pre-styled wig, complete with accessories made of either gold, silver, tortoiseshell or faux-tortoiseshell.)

The Nihongami covers the entire set of hairstyles that both professional geishas and the geisha- to- be- maiko wear during their career and training. The five different hairstyles worn by the maiko during her training include wareshinobu, ofuku, katsuyama, yakko-shimada and sakkou. Experts, traditional hairstylists like keppatsu-shi, were employed to style the hair accordingly. However, after the Second World War, the number of geishas dwindled and those who remained wore wigs known as katsura.

Long Horns of the Miao women

Long Horns Hairstyle of Miao women
credit@ IBTimes UK

In Miao or Hmong, women of China are an ethnic minority. One subgroup of the tribe is popularly known as ‘Long Horns,’ for their hairstyle. The hairstyle is created by placing U-shaped pieces of wood on the top of their heads, around which their hair is wrapped. The resulting appearance is that of a set of giant horns. A white cord is used to secure the coif. More often than not, young girls and women would weave their ancestors’ locks into their own hair, adding more weight and thickness to the style. The extra locks may have the hair of up to four generations of the ancestors’. To fill out the hairpiece, wool and linen were added, bound around the horn in the shape of the figure eight.

An elaborate process- creating the long horn hairstyle
credit@ Interact China

The significance behind this elaborate hairstyle amounts to the Miao’s relationship with their cattle, namely buffaloes and oxen. A hairstyle imitating the horns of these animals meant paying tribute to the spirits and power of the nature and animal kingdom. The hairstyle dates back to around two thousand years. While it is mostly employed by women of the tribe, men used to wear the hairstyle in the earlier times to signify that the wearer of the hairstyle had the strength of an ox.

Significance in Anthropology

Hairstyles symbolize an individual’s tribal affiliations, ethnicity, age, religion, social status and marital status. For many indigenous cultural groups, hair is defined and, in many scenarios, helps them reclaim their identities. Age-old hairstyles have stood the test of time within cultures, even when the tribes who used the hairstyles have perished.

In today’s world, these hairstyles have been adopted by individuals, celebrities and social media influencers much more as a fashion statement. Much of the deep cultural meaning behind these styles has been lost. Hence, looking into history and the role hair played during the past is vital to foster a more respectful attitude towards those who used their hair for fighting for freedom from slavery, political freedom and for upholding their cultural identity.

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