The Fascinating History Of Dreadlocks

Photo: Everett/REX Shutterstock.
Dreadlocks, dreads, locks, locs — whatever your term of choice for them may be — are essentially sections of hair that haven't been combed, brushed, or handled at all, according to celebrity hairstylist Lavette Slater. Over time, said hair becomes matted and knotted into itself, forming the anti-hairstyle hairstyle we've all come to know.

While more and more celebrities have adopted dreadlocks in their faux form today, the style itself still has a dated stigma and skewed associations surrounding it — as we've seen with the Giuliana Rancic and Zendaya controversy. But, contrary to popular belief, they're rooted in more of a spiritual affiliation than a "patchouli and weed" one. In fact, they date back thousands of years. 

While it's hard to nail down any kind of exact timeline, we talked to several hairstylists and experts in an attempt to give dreadlocks some kind of linear evolution. While the history itself is fascinating and worth a read, in light of recent pop culture events we also think a quick refresher on all things locs is important to help clear up misconceptions and negative connotations.

Read on for a look into the history of locs, from 2,500 BCE to today. 


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Photo: REX Shutterstock.
2,500 BCE
The exact date and group of people that begot locks is hard to pinpoint, but Slater notes that they may have lived as far back as 2,500 BCE and practiced various religions.

As Dr. Bert Ashe, professor of English and American studies at the University of Richmond, points out in his forthcoming book Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, the first written evidence is in what is now India's Vedic scriptures, which show the deity Shiva wearing the style. "The word used in the Vedic scriptures is 'jaTaa,' which means 'twisted lock of hair,'" he writes. The style was also found in ancient Egypt: Anthropologists have discovered mummies with their hair still intact with locks. And, in the Old Testament, some interpretations say that Samson is mentioned as having dreadlocks and, when Delilah cuts them, loses his unsurpassed strength.

"People from different faiths look at their hair to be holy and as a form of strength and power," says Slater. "To not comb your hair, to some, is a disregard of vanity and things of the world." But, it's more than just a dismissal of the physical world; it's a Rastafarian belief that knotted hair prevents energy from escaping through the top of the head and hair, allowing it to remain in the body and aid in the strength of mind, body, and spirit.
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Photo: Everett/REX Shutterstock.
1970s
Even though dreadlocks have been around for thousands of years, when many people think of the style, their mind goes to one person: Bob Marley. When the late singer came on the scene in the '70s, many began to associate locs with all things Marley, which included reggae music, Jamaica, and the Rastafarian culture.

Which isn't wrong — the dreadlocks phenomenon emerged from Jamaica before spreading to the U.S. And, for the Rastas there, the style was more a way of life than for vanity purposes. "For a Rastafarian, you grow your hair in dreadlocks as an homage to Samson...they're seen as a sign of virility, strength, and inner power," says hairstylist and loc wearer Johnnie Sapong. "Traditionally, they're something that you cultivate, nurture, and grow." He adds that, in the Rasta culture, whenever a parent passes away, it's custom to shave your locs to begin a new cycle as a sign of respect.

The decision of Rastafarians to wear dreadlocks also stemmed from the desire to provoke society, by going against the norm and sending a message of difference. As with any act of rebellion, this has been met with uncertainty. "At first, the hair choices of the Rasta brethren were seen as frightening to children, destabilizing to society, and possibly even sacrilegious," writes Ashe in his book. "It was a kind of finger-pointing hairstyle that really allowed for an unconventional persona on the part of the wearer."
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Photo: CHARLES SYKES/REX Shutterstock.
1980s
While loc-wearing artists like Marley and Jean-Michel Basquiat served as sources of inspiration for many, it wasn't until actress Whoopi Goldberg came on the scene in the '80s that they truly reached peak in the mainstream. With the explosion of cable television as a catalyst, America was introduced not only to the new actress, but to her 'do.

"It was Whoopi, beginning in 1985, who gradually gave Black Americans what might be called cultural permission to wear dreadlocks... And, she did it by establishing a context around the hairstyle that had nothing to do with Jamaica, reggae, or the Rastafari," writes Ashe. "Gradually, her enormous fame gave dreadlocks a certain odd, quirky normalcy that allowed for — or, at least, coincided with — the flourishing of the hairstyle."

And, flourish it did. The '80s and '90s were something of a golden era of dreadlocks, with all races and genders donning the style — Lauryn Hill, Ani DiFranco, Boy George, and Lenny Kravitz being just a few of them.
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Photo: Jim Smeal/BEImages.
2000s-Today
Nowadays, celebs like Zendaya, Brandy, Ciara, and even Kylie Jenner (to much backlash) have taken on locs as more of an "on-trend style" than for spiritual pride or to make a political statement. "I think the natural hair movement has basically taken [dreadlocks] up a notch and inspired people to look at other [natural] hairstyles, and it’s returned us back to something that’s been around," says hairstylist Kim Kimble. "I was doing faux locs back in '95, so it's resurfacing now as a fashion statement."

But, locs are still commonly associated with all things Jamaica. "You would think that as [the style] becomes more common, it would become more Americanized and that doesn’t seem to be the case," notes Ashe. "It’s almost as if the cultural DNA of the hairstyle is Rasta, Jamaica, reggae music, and the farthest it gets from that source, it still retains some critical strands of that cultural DNA and it simply cannot be unwoven in a way that is interesting. And, I don’t know if it will remain that way, but it sure seems like it. It’s 2015, Bob Marley died in 1981, and the connection still seems to be there."

Which just goes to show why it's so important to know the true history behind any given hairstyle. Hopefully, by educating ourselves and talking about locs more openly, we can help erase the stigma for those who choose to wear them.
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