As a Black beauty editor, I always get nervous when Fashion Month rolls around. Show after show, I hold my breath just waiting for the inevitable cultural appropriation to go down. Would Gigi Hadid debut the durag as the hot new silk hair accessory for spring? Or would Kendall Jenner come traipsing down the runway rocking an Afro puff?
If you know the history of cultural appropriation in the fashion industry, you know my anxiety and exasperation are justified. It's common to see fashion houses ripping off various cultures through hairstyles, accessories, or garment design. Who can forget Marc Jacobs's Spring 2017 presentation, in which Jacobs infamously sent his predominantly white cast of models down the catwalk with pastel-coloured locs and responded to backlash by stating that he doesn’t “see colour or race.” In 2015, Valentino showcased an “Africa-inspired” collection on primarily white models who were — wait for it — wearing tied-up cornrows. And even earlier this year, Gucci was criticized for dressing models in headpieces identical to traditional Sikh turbans and hijabs for its winter presentation.
These runways are supposed to set the beauty trends for the next six months, but what we don't need is more white women rocking "boxer braids" or "Bo Derek braids" because they saw them in a fashion show. To quote Amandla Stenberg, "don't cash crop my cornrows." For years, women of colour have been deemed "ghetto" and "unprofessional" for wearing these styles, while it's considered "chic" or "fashionable" when paraded on white women.
But at last, this season felt different. According to The Fashion Spot’s bi-annual diversity report, the class of models walking the runway this September was the most inclusive ever; for the first time in history, models of colour accounted for 44.8% of runway castings. The rise in Black women walking the runway also presented a shift in the beauty looks created backstage. Natural hairstyles on the runway were at an all-time high. Black models of all shades, shapes, and sizes proudly wore curls, Afros, and, yes, cornrows on the runway.
Prestige brands (like Chanel, Versace, and Oscar de la Renta) styled Black women with straight-back braids, with some tucked in buns and others dangling down models' backs, while their peers wore their hair tied in ponytails. For once, styles that originated in Black culture were accurately displayed atop the heads of Black models. More importantly, the models didn't have to change their hair to fit in to the stick-straight beauty standards that still exist. Models of colour were their true selves.
Take Indira Scott, a 21-year old model who walked multiple shows this season, from Ralph Lauren to Dior, wearing the same signature box braids she wears off-duty. While her peers sported ponytails or chignons, Scott's trademark braids stayed constant. This year, seeing a woman on the runway with her natural hair felt more authentic than ever, and it didn't seem like a strategic placement made for diversity's sake.
As a young girl, my mom would sit me between her knees and cornrow my hair for school. Back then, there weren't many women on the runway or on television in similar braids (aside from Moesha's iconic micro-braids). Now, these styles are showing up in high fashion arenas where cornrows were once considered taboo — a milestone in a world where many women still can't wear their twists, locs, or braids to work or school without being harassed.
The presence of cornrows in the right way at Fashion Week does not erase the fact that there's still so much work to be done in making the fashion world a more inclusive space. But it was empowering and refreshing to see an accurate representation of Black culture, instead of a caricature, on the world's biggest stages. And it's a small stride that makes me hopeful for seasons to come.