Straight Hair Is Dead
“Everything old is new again,” etc., etc., whatever.
I’ve heard this phrase a thousand times from various people in my life, and especially from my mom. She's consistently aghast to find me spending $60 at a vintage clothing store for Jones New York dresses and Cold Water Creek fringe jackets she owned in the ‘80s and '90s (and probably paid half the price for).
If you’re a regular here in the world of fashion magazines, the concept that trends are cyclical is probably obvious to you. But there’s one exception to the idea that everything that goes around, comes back around, and it's straight hair.
Straight hair’s reign as the default style — the end result of every makeover montage in every '90s and '00s teen movie — has been long, and mostly unchallenged. But today, it’s no longer the de facto example of “professional” or “appropriate” or even “neutral.”
So, that must mean curly hair is the new black, right? Er, kind of. Read on to find out what the experts have to say about the hair revolution we're in the midst of, and the final frontier of hair trends.
Then and now
In the U.S., our obsession with straight hair has come in and out of fashion over the years. The hippies of the ‘60s let their hair fall to their waists, an homage to Mother Earth and all things “natural,” as well as a repudiation of their mothers' pin curled bobs. Cher inspired an era of shiny, stick-straight hair, parted at the center in the '70s. The ‘90s grunge era of face-framing layers and limp, Kate Moss waves eventually gave way to the glossy Megan Fox glam of the '00s. Because this is America, all of these trends were, of course, for white women — and for white hair.
Hollywood trends aside, though, over the last seven decades, straight hair has always been safe. And for Black women, who have almost always faced discrimination for wearing their natural hair in the workplace, relaxed styles or wigs were practically a requirement to be hired, let alone be taken seriously.
The popularity has been attributed to Eurocentric or Western ideals, but it’s just as much an issue of class. (Because doesn't everything boil down to being white or being rich?) The sentiment, explains Rachael Gibson, hair historian, was, “If your hair looks that good, you're clearly not working very hard ... you're not running around after kids. [Straight] hair is a signifier of your wealth, and the fact that you have the luxury of time on your hands.”
“It's like that hair says ‘rich and expensive,’” she adds, referencing Kate Middleton’s coiffed, cascading waves. “And I think that's why people kind of want it."
Gibson alludes to the myth of straight hair as an easier blank canvas as well, pointing to the 1920’s flapper bob — “the first modern fashion haircut” — as an example of the versatility of straight hair that allowed women with either endless amounts of time, or naturally straight hair, to participate in what was fashionable.
“If you were someone with really curly hair in the 1920's, and you're looking at these glamorous women and thinking, ‘I wish I was like them,’ you're probably also going to think, ‘My curly hair is not going to sit like that. I'm not going to be able to use that style,’” she adds. “So I think there's a sort of exclusivity in it, as well.”
But exactly one hundred years later, thankfully, the elite’s influence on hair trends goes only as far as their follower count. And the rise of the “hair routine” has also given rise to an understanding of styling natural hair.
On the runway
There was a time not long ago when runway shows pursued a precise level of uniformity when it came to hair and makeup.
“Over the last few seasons, you don’t necessarily see the same look on everyone going down the runway,” says Ted Gibson, celebrity stylist and owner of the STARRING salon and hair products. [Ed. note: No relation to Rachael Gibson.] “Fashion has opened up a lot more to diversify the definition of what hair means to a woman. It is about texture; the right products and the right tools.”
“It’s the whole idea of being an individual rather than feeling like a cookie-cutter,” he adds. “You don’t have to put a brush through it.”
Don’t get me wrong: Straight hair is still an intentional style choice — emphasis on choice. Sleek, pin-straight hair that’s center-parted or slicked to the side will always be a statement, but it is no longer a requirement. Whether in the context of the workplace or in the context of how we define beauty, straight hair is no longer the default.
When it was announced earlier this month that for the first time in its 113-year history, UPS was letting its employees wear their natural hair, my first thought was, “Wait, this isn’t already a thing?”
Turns out it wasn't, because sometimes change moves at the pace of a sloth working at the DMV. In fact, The Crown Act, which was written to protect people with natural hair from workplace discrimination, was only passed by the House in 2020. This, despite the fact that studies have shown year after year after year that Black people, and specifically Black women, face bias for wearing their natural hair in the workplace, and are viewed as “less competent,” because, you know, bigotry and racism.
In fact, it was only six years ago, in 2014, that a friend of mine who was interning at a glossy New York fashion magazine (not this one), was told by her superiors that a blowout was required for an interview in the fashion industry (as well as a manicure — but a subtle one, read: not the acrylics made popular by Black women). The cost of the “mermaid waves,” made famous by Blake Lively and literally every other “blonde bombshell” before her, is, of course, more expensive for Black women, not to mention more damaging for their hair. So yeah, another form of discrimination.
VIDEO: Taraji P. Henson’s Afro Is Here to Remind You She's Proud AF to Be Black
So, what’s next?
Both Ted and Rachael believe that the future, while not straight, is not necessarily super curly, either. It's more about working with whatever you have. For example, "Frizz," says Ted, "is no longer a bad word."
Rachael adds, "I do feel genuinely like, no matter your hair type or texture, or your personal aesthetic, I think you can find someone in the media probably who has a style that you'd like to emulate. And I think there's so many great curly hair role models now, and we are getting there with seeing that in ad campaigns and TV ... we're in an era where hair trends are sort of moving — we're kind of past just having a haircut or style. I think we're just in this stage now where it's like kind of anything goes."
Social media is an obvious agent of this change, as we have access now, more than ever, to tutorials upon tutorials for every hairstyle under the sun. But the historically underserved curly and natural communities have also benefited from the creation of more products to aid in the expressions of these styles.
"Product development is at an interesting stage, where it's like no matter what hair you have or want to have, there are a) tools, and b) there are products, so you can either achieve the thing you want or enhance the thing you have," Rachael shares. "And with any kind of hair trend through history, that's kind of been the case. Like, when people decided to buy home hair color, then obviously you started seeing people doing more of that [and experimenting with color]."
Both agree that the pandemic, while taxing in a hundred different ways, will also change the future of many women's relationships to their hair, as it has created time for people to be OK with a trial and error, to experiment with color and bangs and mullets and shaved heads without facing the kinds of repercussions you might expect from school or your workplace or your conservative neighbors.
"I just think we're going to have more of this move away from trends, to be honest, and just this idea of embracing what you've got," says Rachael. "Because for so many years, since time began, people have used chemicals and products and things on their hair to change it. And I'm sure that's not just going to go away overnight, but it does feel like now, more than ever, and certainly in recent history, you kind of have this chance to just be who you want to be."