For thousands of years, hair braiding has been an enduring craft — and nowhere did it shine more than at the New Jersey Natural Hair and Beauty Expo earlier this year.
In August, two professional hair braiders at the show put their skills to the test when they faced off in a highly satisfying battle to see who could come up with the best-looking braids. (Watch the video above to get an inside look at the contest.)
Experts believe hair braiding dates back to approximately 3500 BCE, based on the discovery of a rock painting in North Africa that showed a woman with cornrows breastfeeding her child.
Considered the earliest form of braids, cornrows served two purposes: they spoke to societal customs and were a fashion statement, a 2018 explainer from Essence notes. A specific style, for instance, could denote what clan someone was from, how old she was or whether she was married.
Over the course of the next several millennia, hair braiding also took on a rebellious undertone. Speaking to Essence, Lori L. Tharps, an associate professor at Temple University, revealed that African slaves in the U.S. would use braids to secretly communicate with one another. The number of plaits on one person's head, for example, could indicate where a slave needed to go in order to escape bondage.
In the decades following slavery, braids went from being looked down upon to becoming a powerful rejection of the "Eurocentric framework of beauty," according to Essence. "Black Americans were developing a deep desire to honor our African roots, and our styles du jour reflected that," then-Essence beauty editor Siraad Dirshe wrote.
For many in the black community, braids have come to embody self-love — despite being repeatedly culturally appropriated.