Although mullets and beehives may come and go, braids have consistently remained au courant across centuries, continents, and genders. Even when historical styles are “quoted” in contemporary fashion shows by Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, braids — even when they’re not updated or modified — can look fiercely modern (or just plain fierce).
Braids have been used to symbolize wealth, marital status, age, and rank. They’re also functional, keeping their wearers cool and unencumbered so they can work without getting hair in their eyes.
Let’s take a little stroll through centuries and continents and check out all the meanings and styles braids have taken on, from the simplest single plait to the most elaborate updos.
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Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza
From 3500 BC
The cornrow, a hairstyle in which small sections of hair are braided close to the scalp in rows, may be the oldest braiding style. In the 1950s, a French ethnologist and his team found a Stone Age rock painting in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara. Dating back to 3500 BCE, it showed a woman with cornrows feeding her child from 3500 BCE. And, in a Nigerian clay sculpture from 500 BCE, a figure from the Nok civilization has cornrows etched onto its head.
Depending on the region and group from which it came, the style of the cornrow, from simple linear cornrows to complex geometric ones, helped to express the identity of its wearer: kinship, status, age, religion, and ethnicity. That's a lot to weave into one hairstyle.
Braid Like An (Ancient) Egyptian
Ancient Egyptians, although disdainful of body hair, loved the hair on their heads and styled their hair with wigs, jewels, beads, and even extensions. Braiding, in particular, in addition to being beautiful, kept Egyptians cool in a scorching climate, and kept lice from having places to burrow.
Egyptian children usually had shaved heads, but sometimes they kept a tuft of hair on the right side of their heads, which they braided and curled. Young girls often braided their hair into several sections before gathering them all into a ponytail.
When it comes to the “Cleopatra” look that we’re familiar with, that's where it gets really interesting. Men and women would separate their hair into tiny braided strands that had beads woven in — from the roots to tips in the most extravagant (and probably heavy!) cases, or sometimes just added at the braid’s tip. Sometimes, braids made of human hair were added as extensions to make hair look thicker or longer. Queen Meryet-Amun, like many wealthy women, was even buried with extra braids by her side.
Braids even found their way to beards. Although the ancient Egyptians generally frowned upon facial hair, beards were seen as symbols of divinity. If you look closely at the beard on Tutankhamun's gold mask, it’s long, narrow — and braided.
Flavian Flava and Greek Goddess Braids
Being the daughter of Roman emperor Titus (79 -81 CE) during the Flavian era had its perks. His daughter, Julia, had the leisure time to construct her hair into elaborate updos involving crescent-shaped wire frames cascading with curls in the front, and divided, braided sections in the back. (Party in the front — and
in the back!) Many Roman women of leisure followed suit. The later Antonine Period (96 – 192 CE) kicked the Flavian hairstyle up a notch: The curls were lowered a bit in the front, and the braids coiled at the back of the head were moved into a more prominent position on top of the head. So
Servants and slaves in ancient Greece sported short hair, and many women in Sparta who participated in sports often cropped theirs as well. Women of leisure, however, could have longer hair that they would braid, twist and arrange into ornate styles to wear at important public functions, reflecting their status and rank in society.
A few years ago, undergrads at Fairfield University’s Art History department
experimented with the braided hairstyles shown on the sculpted maidens — or “Caryatids” — that hold up the Acropolis in Athens. They wanted to know if the sculptors had created hairstyles that reflected what women of the day were wearing, and they did this by testing the styles out on their own heads. The results were so beautiful that many a YouTuber
has since created instructional videos so you can make your own Caryatid braids.
Native American Braids
In the popular imagination, braids are practically synonymous — stylistically — with traditional Native American hairstyles. But the fact is, as there are more than 500 Native American tribes in North America, and each one had a different relationship to braids and their meanings. So much of these tribes' history was recorded orally, but we think it's safe to say that braiding preceded the arrival of Europeans by millennia.
Cayuse, Kiowa and Wisconsin tribal women once wore their hair in braids, the former in two long braids (although sometimes the Kiowas wore their hair loose), and the Wisconsin women with one braid down their back adorned with ribbons. In an even older tradition, Wisconsin women doubled over the single braid to form a “club” that was covered with deerskin and sometimes adorned with a long beaded piece that hung to the ground.
For Quapaw women, married women used to wear their hair loose, while single women wore their hair in braids, sometimes rolled and worn behind their ears and adorned with decorations.
In an interesting twist of conventional gender expectations, Plains Indian men wore two long braids and the Plains Indian women cut their hair shorter than the men. Blackfoot Nation men wore braids, sometimes three at a time, and often with a topknot. And, of course, contemporary Native Americans wear their hair in a variety of hairstyles — sometimes braided, sometimes not.
The Ancient Celts
The ancient Celts, the inhabitants of what is today the British Isles and western Europe, can be traced back 25 centuries — but they were most powerful around 750 BCE. Mythologies have accrued around these tall, fair-skinned folk known for their striking clothes and hair. (Even the Greeks and Romans — no slouches in the style department —were intrigued.) Celtic men and women wore their hair long, and the noble class had elaborate braids that were often decorated. For the working class, braids had a simple function: to keep their hair out of the way while they worked.
Braids Go Medieval in Europe
During the high and late Middle Ages, modesty was a virtue, and displaying flowing locks (unless you were a girl or young woman) was verboten. In fact, if older women of a noble caste walked around without their heads covered, they could be accused of being witches (and we know what happened to them). As a result, even popular Medieval braid styles like the double braid, the braided crown, the double braided bun, or the fishtail braid were all usually covered with headpieces.
Undercover Braids in Mongolia
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that from their heads to their feet, Mongolians have been serious style influencers. As the Mongol Empire grew in the 13th century, noblewomen wore elaborate hairstyles and headpieces. Centuries later, the advent of photography granted the rest of the world a view of the 19th-century summer outfits and hairstyles of the wealthy women of the Mongolian Halh ethnic group.
From their exaggerated jacket shoulders (Claude Montana, anyone?) to their elaborate winged hairdos, they are said to have been the inspiration for Queen Amidala from the Star Wars franchise.
The two large hair “wings” were supposed to evoke a mythical beast. The ends of the hair were covered with braid sheaths, which were supposed to give the illusion of prized long hair. In modern times, some married Mongolian women may wear two long braids similarly hidden by embroidered black cloth bags.
The Chinese “Queue” Braid
The “queue” braid was worn exclusively by male Manchus of Manchuria during China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912). Men shaved off all of the hair above their temples and tied the rest into a long pigtail that went down their back, often topped with a hat. It was considered treason not to wear the queue, and men who disobeyed even faced execution.
After the Qing dynasty fell, Chinese men were no longer forced to wear the plait. Some still did as tradition, but most people stopped wearing the queue when the last emperor of China, Puyi, cut off his queue in 1922.
The Modern Cornrow
African-Americans have long worn braids, but in the 1970s, the Black Is Beautiful movement encouraged people to embrace their roots and natural hair texture by wearing Afros and cornrows in lieu of chemically straightening their hair. Popular styles included the Senegalese twist or Guinea braid (as well as the box braid, zigzag braid, micro braid, and classic cornrow braid).
Of course, what history of the braid would be complete without a mention of some questionable instances of cornrow-wearing? In 1979, director Blake Edwards filmed a cornrow-sporting Bo Derek in a wet swimsuit, running slow-motion in 10. The following decades would show many Caucasian celebs try cornrows: Juliette Lewis, Madonna, K-Fed, Justin Timberlake, Axl Rose, and is-he-a-parody-or-is-he-real rapper Riff Raff all followed suit.
Braiding Goes Digital
Back in 2005, a little video website called YouTube launched. (Maybe you've heard of it?) Eight years later, it's host to more than one million braiding videos. That's not counting thousands of Pinterest braid boards, blog tutorials, and Instagrammed shots of pretty plaits. The Internet has made braiding beyond easy to learn — so go out there and pick up a new skill, already!