Europeans in the 18th Century saw hair as an indicator of character: hence so many of the cartoons mocking women with overlarge, overly elaborate hairstyles. Smooth hair was “civilized,” while African hair, particularly the most tightly coiled, kinky hair was seen as mere wool: an indicator to their white contemporaries that they were “wild and disorderly”. The Europeans did not see African hairstyles as remotely important, when in reality they date back over 3000 years, and could contain complex communications, indicating occasion, religion, family, status, age, marital status, and occupation.
However, forced labour in America meant less time to spend on hairstyles, so they became simplified, and mingled different cultures together. In many cases enslaved women working in households were forced to cover their hair with headwraps by the Tignon laws and thanks to the jealousy of their mistresses – tightly coiled African hair with its height and volume is (ironically) far more suited to the elaborate high hairstyles of the white upper classes.
While some Black people in colonial America used hair powders, it is of note that even they kept their natural hair texture, as a form of passive resistance against white beauty standards and control over their bodies.
In the later 1770s through to the beginning of the 1790s, many European women adopted a “frizzed” hairstyle, very similar to an afro. They weren’t shy about where they had acquired the style, either:
French women are “covered with a vast load of false hair, which is Frizzled on the forehead so as to exactly resemble the wooly heads of the Guinea negros.”Tobias Smollet, 1760s
1780s fashion plates displayed the “Coiffure a la Jamaique” alongside such styles as the “Robe a la Creole”.
While “wooly” hair was seen by Europeans as morally degenerate when it was on the heads of Black people, on the heads of white European women it was evidence of their status: they had the time and money to be able to twist and set their hair into the volume required by fashion. Such appropriations of Black hairstyles continue to this day: such styles that are looked down on as “unprofessional,” “ghetto,” or “ugly” on the heads of Black people are seen as “chic,” “stylish,” and “groundbreaking” when worn by white models and celebrities.
Even the legislation against Black hair has continued, with girls being sent home from school for their afros being “too big,” or for wearing their natural hair, or women being denied jobs if they don’t cut off their dreadlocks. There is a complete lack of understanding within modern day white society about the sheer quantity of cultural significance that Black hairstyles contain, and I will confess to being guilty of only knowing about them in the context of the 18th Century in America.
For more information on this subject, it is very much worth looking at Cheyney McKnight’s essay in the American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Beauty, and also at her YouTube channel, Not Your Momma’s History.