Revisiting Some of the Most Memorable Hair Styles of the '90s
The '90s were a special time in pop culture. It felt like Black cinema, television, and music just couldn't get any better. And the stars who brought those projects to life were unequivocal originals — right down to the way they wore their hair.
Looks like Lil' Kim's array of colorful wigs, Janet Jackson's vivid red Velvet Rope-era curls, the over-the-top hair in B*A*P*S, and the many braided styles from Moesha are still being talked about three decades later. And today, celebrities — whether on the red carpet, onscreen, or on social media — and fans alike are constantly paying homage to these iconic styles, proving that they've withstood the test of time.
But funny enough, the hairstylists behind some of these monumental styles never intended to make such a lasting impact. They were simply reveling in the freedom, joy, and fun that comes with creativity.
"It was so organic. It was so freaking organic," says hairstylist Dionne Alexander, the woman responsible for the unforgettable wigs Lil' Kim wore throughout the decade and into the early-2000s. "We were just creating and having fun."
I spoke with each of these three women to talk about their journeys into hair history, and where they think theatrical styling goes from here — while everyone else is looking back into the '90s and Y2K era for inspiration once again. Ahead, each of their stories, in their own words.
I grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but we moved to Los Angeles when I was 10. I always loved playing with dolls. Every time my mom gave me a doll, I immediately felt she needed makeup and new hair [laughs]. So when my mother would go to the hair shop, if she came back and hated her hair, I would redo it.
Being in LA, I got to go to the set of some shows that were taping. I was mesmerized as I watched the hairstylist come on the set and style. They created looks for each shot and they had to be working at a speedy rate to do so. To actually see this type of work happen before my eyes, the changes that were made — severe changes — from one scene to another, that intrigued me, and I thought maybe hairstyling's what I should do. So I went to hair school, but I chose a very small school: the Charles Ross Hair School. I wanted a more intimate setting so I could grasp more of what he had to teach me.
Charles taught me modular cutting, and through those basics came endless possibilities for how I could create shape with textured hair. Before, we were always so limited as to what we could do with our hair. And if we did do something with our hair, it was so structured and placed.
My first job out of school was with a Black haircare line. A photo of my hands appeared on the instructions for how to use the product. I was thrilled about that [laughs]. Then I applied for a job in a Beverly Hills salon and I got it. I didn't make that much money, but I was convinced that I could eventually. And some of my clients from hair school followed me, so I went from $3 to $30 for a blow dry.
From there, I went to another salon that was a little bit bigger. And I'd say about eight to nine months in, I got a call from Janet [Jackson] — I was not even a year out of school when Janet called me. At the time, she had just finished Good Times, but I had worked with a few celebrities prior. I was doing some of the hair for Earth, Wind & Fire, I also did Deniece Williams.
In the mid-'80s, Janet was at the point where she was about to blow up, that was right around the time of "Control."
When she first came to the salon, she was such a tomboy. She didn't really have a vision for her hair, she was kind of just like a regular client at the time who would come in for a regular service. Then she asked me to do her hair for a TV performance on American Band Stand, and I said yes.
I remember being in the dressing room and then all of a sudden someone came in with a countdown as to when she needed to be on the stage, ready to perform. And I was like, "Oh God." I just went into a trance and I didn't see anything. I didn't hear anybody anymore. I just went into myself and I gave her an Elvis Presley look with side burns. And to tell you the truth, it was a hit. Everybody was talking about how she danced and her hair would move, but it would always go back into place. And that was the beginning of her being known for that type of flowing hair. After that, it was just one video after another, and another.
Janet trusted me. She valued me. So that gave me the confidence to design and work with her well. I think that's why the Velvet Rope era was so special.
Janet always liked texture. She liked a natural look, and so that's what we went for in the '90s — something extremely textured. And we wanted a strong, strong color. I was mixing almost three to four colors together to come up with shades to develop that red. It created dimension, which I've always thought works well with hair when it moves.
The video for "Together Again" was heavily inspired by West Africa, but we put our spin on it. I had to create something that would pop, but could also work with her dancing and everything. Sometimes, the styles you see in editorials don't work when you're moving. So we found something that did both.
It was the same idea for "Got 'Til It's Gone," with the ponies. We needed something that felt right for a West African-inspired club scene, but also had movement. That's when Kevyn Aucoin did her makeup. And if you notice, she didn't look like she had a lot of makeup on; her face was more shiny. So the hair felt organic but it stood out.
I also really loved the look we did for "Scream" in '95. To this day, it's one of my favorite, favorite videos. It was just, it was totally who I am: unconstructed, not conventional. I love hair that looks like it's alive and not stuck.
When I was creating these looks, I tried not to reference too many things. I did look at things, magazines and whatnot, but I feel like it limits you and you get stuck in something that you've seen. So just between maybe costuming, what she was going to wear, what length of hair we needed to create the best movement for her and work with her dancing, these are the things that influenced what I needed to do for her.
As far as the color of her hair was concerned, a lot of times it was influenced by how she felt at that moment, or what she wanted to feel like. I think that's what made Janet original. We didn't repurpose things that we'd seen. I was just trying to create something new and fresh for her. I think that's why people would always want to know what her next look would be, because it wasn't something that was referenced. It was Janet.
When I look at the hairstyles today, I definitely see Janet's influence. I really see her influence in every way. It's more extreme now than before, but it's definitely Janet's influence through color, through texture, through just every aspect. There's not a lot that I've seen that Janet hasn't already done.
But back then, I had no clue that these styles would still be making an impact today. I was just really challenging myself. Janet was making hit after hit, and I wanted to complement and do whatever I could do to create hair that was a hit alongside the music.
I'm the baby of three, and grew up in DC. My mom went to beauty school after I was born, so I came up in the industry. Ironically, though, I wasn't a person that played with dolls. I literally just started working on people's hair. From the time I would say I was five, six, I was in the salon with my mom. Then she got her own when I was probably 14, which led me to a whole 'nother side of hair: learning the business, having to come in and shampoo, having to do things to support the family business, which also sparked my interest.
I started beauty school in high school, but then I stopped and went to Europe. I was going to model and do hair. So a friend and I, we had one-way tickets. My mom knew some people in Paris, and we had this list of different people we were going to check out to try to make a life for ourselves over there, but it didn't really work out the way we thought it would. We stayed for five months and then ended up having to come back. But I would say that was my introduction to international beauty, and just a whole 'nother mindset.
Once I returned to DC in the late '80s, it felt too small for me. I wanted to go to New York. I had this thing where I wanted to work with celebrities, I wanted to be in that whole world. And I just used to talk about it as if I knew it would happen for some strange reason. In the meantime, I started doing hair shows in my hometown and making a bit of a name for myself before officially moving in '91.
I only knew one person in New York before I left, though: a friend who went to Hampton University. He would bring some girls from New York to me to get their hair done, so I built some relationships. It was actually one of those young ladies was who I ended up staying with when I moved. And it's good that I did, because she took me to a salon in Manhattan one day called Anderson's, where I started working. Anderson worked with some of the actors on The Cosby Show, people from All My Children, so I would see some celebrities around the salon.
My brother was a DJ at the time, he was in that whole mix, and he knew MC Lyte. I remember telling him, "Oh, I want to do MC Lyte's hair." He was like, "Oh, okay, yeah, yeah, yeah." But it never happened. Ironically, I got to work on a film called Fly by Night, just by chance. At that time, you had to be a part of the union to work on set, but a friend of mine was a wardrobe stylist on that film and she gave me the contact information. I would call to inquire about the job, but I wasn't really marketable at that point. No one was really interested, but I dropped off my resume at the production office anyways.
Maybe a week later, they called me. The hairdresser who they originally hired quit maybe four days before they were supposed to start shooting. The woman that they gave the stack of resumes to was a special effects makeup artist from DC. When she saw I had a DC address on my resume, she decided to encourage them to give me a shot. They kept telling me the whole time that if they found someone union that I would have to leave, but I stayed the whole movie — and MC Lyte was in that movie.
We connected, built a relationship, and she asked me to go on tour with her. I helped create more soft, feminine styles for her, and those looks made me really popular. People noticed the change. From there, I just was on. Any new artist that came through, people would tell them, "Okay, go to Dionne, the girl from DC. Go to Dionne." Mary [J. Blige] ended up coming to me. I worked her first album, her third, and her fourth album. And then from Mary, I started doing [Lil'] Kim.
I still get chills thinking about the 1999 MTV VMAs look. It's hard to break down how it all came together because I know that it was so organic. It was so freaking organic that it's hard to really put in words. It was effortless. There was a team of us, and there was such a synergy that was beautiful. Everyone was just creating and having fun. Misa [Hylton] would come up with the outfit, and while I didn't have it all figured out with the hair, I understood the color scheme.
Also, in the late '90s, celebrities weren't really wearing wigs like that, so I had a whole sea of wigs in the world to work from. I've always had an eye, but going to Europe, going to hair shows, and traveling elsewhere internationally, broadened that.
As for the designer logo hair, I need to do those again, huh?
I honestly can't remember who came up with the actual idea of it, I would have to go ahead and give that idea to Kim. But I knew how to execute it.
I would go to the art store — see, that's what I'm saying, we created — and get trace paper. I made the designs, cut out the trace paper, laid the trace paper on the wigs, and started coloring with magic marker. People today would use hair color, but I just used magic marker and it worked.
My time with Kim was a wonderful period of my life. She was really great to work with because she was very, very, very open. What you saw of her, what you would see in interviews, that fun, bubbly personality — that was her. I would look at different magazines and bring it to her. She'd be like, "Oh my God, yes." She would want to do it. It was just endless creativity with her, I could do almost anything with her hair. And social media didn't exist then, so who cared what anyone said? It wasn't about that. You just went in and did your best work.
I loved what I did and what we created, but in 2003, I decided to take a step back. It wasn't because of anything bad, it was no one's fault, there were no funny situations — I was suffering from endometriosis and had to find the strength to walk away. I had to choose my life, my soul, and myself.
But I'm at a place now where I want to get back into it, just not in the same capacity as before. Maybe I would do creative direction, something in that area. I'm just taking my time to figure it out.
We're in an era now where people are rushing to come up with ideas and kind of just end up mimicking what we've done before. In the '90s, we were inspired by our own creativity. That's what's missing today. I am so grateful that my work is appreciated, I really am, but I want young artists to know that more, new, different looks are in you. Yes, be inspired, but take the time to create something authentically new.
So for me, when I reenter the industry, it has to make sense. I want to bring something new to the table. I don't want to just copy what we did before. It has to be fresh.
I was born in Chicago, Illinois, moved to Los Angeles when I was 7, and I am a third generation hairstylist. My mother and my grandmother did hair. When I was growing up, I lived with my grandmother most of the time; she was doing clients at home and had retired from the salon. So I watched her do hair, but I also loved fashion. I was so inspired by Black designers like Patrick Kelly and Willi Smith. I thought that's what I was going to do. But once I started doing hair, I fell in love with it and I just didn't let it go.
I went to beauty college during high school, then I started working in a salon. My introduction into working in television and film came when I volunteered to do hair for a play. Robert Townsend was the producer of this particular play, and I really enjoyed it.
Once I got to meet Robert and his assistant, I started telling her I want to work in the movie business doing hair, and working with them on some of their shows. I knew he had a couple of TV shows coming up, but at the time he had other people he was working with, and was not interested in hiring me. But every now and then, I'd be checking in with his assistant and saying, "I really want to get in the union, I really want to work on film and television." She always would say, "Not right now, but we'll call you if we need you for anything." It was that, don't call me, I'll call you kind of thing.
About a year later, I opened my own salon in LA, and I got a call from her. She said, "Robert wants to see some crazy hairstyles."
In the '90s, I was into doing hair shows, creating crazy helicopter looks, competing in Hair Wars, all the fantasy competitions. So I sent him pictures of hair that I had done in a hair show. He said "Okay, great," and asked me questions about my salon: When was it busy? When was it slow? What was it like? I didn't know why he was asking me all that. But then he calls me one day and says, "Hey, I'm coming by your salon." Then he walks in the door with Halle Berry! I almost fell out.
At the time the only celebrity I had done was Wesley Snipes, I did a manicure.
I guess about a week or so later I got a call — he had a producer call me — they said, "Are you interested in coming to work on this film?" It was B*A*P*S. I said, "Well, let me check my schedule." But in my head I was like, "Yeah!"
The hairstyles in the film came from the actual pictures of styles I created and competed with in the hair shows. So it was basically a mix of my own style, my take on fantasy hair, and avant-garde style. I took all that and brought it to the movie.
I got into the union and did film and television through B*A*P*S, but when I started with Brandy — I met her on the set of Cinderella, I was doing Natalie Desselle, then I did her hair — that's what started me in the freelance world. I would always do my clients on films, but I was also working on their magazine covers, traveling with them for appearances, and doing red carpet events, and music projects. That was super cool for me, because that opened up a whole new world of creativity. Music videos were my fashion. I didn't have to be a fashion designer, because I became a hair designer.
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For Moesha in specific, I wasn't a braider per se, I was more into styling. So I started creating pieces out of braids and trying to turn her braids into more styles, and show the versatility, because that's what she wanted. We even created extension braids and put them in, hair accessories, and sometimes it'd be larger braid pieces and things like that. We did all kinds of crazy stuff on Moesha. I also worked on her Never Say Never album project, and it was the same sort of idea.
When I look back at the '90s and see these looks coming back again, honestly, I never knew that the '90s would come back like this. I was just living in the moment at the time. And B*A*P*S of all things — I've been seeing so many posts of people recreating B*A*P*S — I had no idea it would come back, or that it would even have any of the impact that it has had. But it's very nostalgic, and it's super dear to me because it was my intro into the business. That was my first big project.
The '90s were a pivotal time that changed my entire career. It was totally unexpected, but that was the beautiful thing about it.
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