The art of black hair was on display in eclectic glory at this week’s Met Gala, from the hair sculpture of Naomi Osaka, the waves of Lupita Nyong’o, the halo of cornrows of Olympian Allyson Felix, to the braided durag of Amandla Stenberg. Playing to the event’s theme of America, the vernacular of black hair was brought to haute couture.
“I think that the Met Gala can make space for celebrities to support and celebrate black designers, black stylists and black glam teams in a way that hasn’t been done in the past,” says the stylist Naeemah LaFond, who did the hair for Gossip Girl’s Whitney Peak. “Fashion has often ‘borrowed’ from the black experience in both design and in the beauty aesthetic of black women.”
Indeed, the politics of black hair continues to be an issue in the US. Only 12 states have passed the Crown Act (legislation that prevents black hair discrimination), while reports of black hair being mismanaged on the set of Hollywood films is an indicator of the misunderstandings that continue to perpetuate around black hair. This week, Jada Pinkett Smith recalled her “rough” experience on the set of The Nutty Professor.
Alongside the political fashion statements, many used the red carpet to send messages through their hair. “I think the clearest came from Naomi Osaka,” says Dr Joseph L Underwood, the co-author of Textures: the History and Art of Black Hair. The tennis ace wore chunky braids, braided top knots and a fanned-out design that blended her Haitian and Japanese ancestry. “[It] asserted that cultural mixing is what defines contemporary America”, says Underwood.
For the actor Gabrielle Union, who was allegedly fired from America’s Got Talent because her hair was “too black”, her appearance in an elegant up-do was important. “Her hair is the story of black women refusing to perform [for] a white society that still suffers from anti-blackness,” says St Clair Detrick-Jules, the author of My Beautiful Black Hair. She adds that years after Giuliana Rancic, the 2015 Oscars host, said that the singer Zendaya’s dreadlocks probably smelled like “patchouli oil or weed” (she later apologised), it was significant to see “Chloe and Halle Bailey, Kerby Jean-Raymond [making] their locks a centrepiece of their outfits”.