Why the iconic, transformative hairstyle means so much.

By Holly Carter
Feb 10, 2021 @ 8:45 am
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Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris
| Credit: Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg

Kamala Harris represents a lot of historic firsts — the first Indian-American to serve as a U.S. senator (Calif.) and, of course, the first woman and woman of color to become vice president of the United States. Her elegant hairstyle has also won her admirers. At the vice-presidential debate last fall, Harris walked onstage with a straight-but-not-too-straight style that had a subtle front flip. It was bouncy, it was beautiful, and it caused Black Twitter to light up with pride. Harris was rocking a silk press. And it's not the first time this style has made its way to the White House.

Michelle Obama with Zendaya and Oprah
Michelle Obama, Zendaya, and Oprah
| Credit: Monica Schipper/FilmMagic; Albert L. Ortega/Getty; Michael Kovac/Getty

Former first lady Michelle Obama was also a fan of the silk press and wore the look almost every day during her eight years in office, says Johnny Wright, the celebrity hairstylist behind her coveted glossiness. "I literally saw the evolution of curl power and natural hair becoming a thing while we were in the White House," he says. "Seeing representation on that high level gave Black women the grace to just show up, embrace their Blackness, and not feel ostracized." The silk press exemplifies Black Girl Magic and the ways in which Black women can be — and often are required to be — masterful and authentic chameleons.

A basic blowout's more multifaceted, complex older sister, a silk press flattens, or presses, natural (not chemically relaxed) coils and curls of all lengths into shiny, swishy straightness sans frizz. After shampooing (with both detoxifying and moisturizing formulas), deep conditioning, applying ample heat protectant, and blow-drying hair, Wright would reach for a flatiron heated to anywhere from 370 to 450 degrees to meticulously make small sections sleek.

The big bonus? Unlike traditional wash-and-go styles, the silk press can last up to two weeks. Many Black women will protect their investment (a salon may charge between $60 to $100 depending on texture and length) by wrapping or pin-curling their hair at night and covering it with a protective silk scarf at bedtime.

Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker
| Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The style dates back to the early 1900s when the hot comb — a metal comb typically heated on a stove to straighten coarser hair textures — became popular. Entrepreneur and activist Madam C.J. Walker, one of the first Black women to create homemade hair care, is credited with improving the tool's design. Thanks to her pioneering ways, Black women had a better means to straighter styles. "When the press and curl became big, there wasn't enough understanding of how to do natural hair," says Wright. "Nor was there enough representation of beautiful women with natural hair, so the hot comb really provided some level of freedom."

In more recent times, natural has become the new normal. Although the silk press doesn't show hair in all its textured, untouched glory, it is considered a celebration of Black hair. "There is no contract saying that if you're natural, you should never smooth hair out," says Ursula Stephen of Ursula Stephen the Salon in Brooklyn, who does silk presses on celebrity clientele like Zendaya, Sanaa Lathan, and Nia Long. "We show our versatility in our wardrobe: Some days we wear sneakers; some days we have on heels. We can do the same thing with our hair."

Search for "silk press" on social media and you'll be transfixed by all types of textural transformation. Fresh, youthful iterations abound — from bone-straight looks to springy, satiny curls. "The updated press has movement, shine, body, and bounce," says Stephen, noting that ultimately it's all about making the style your own. "What the silk press did is give us back our power and also remind us of the magic within our hair and our skin. We can run into a salon, change our whole look, and become another person. No other race can do it. That is our magic. That's what we do." 

For more stories like this, pick up the March 2021 issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb 12th.