European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal Fashion & History

Hairstyles: Beauty and Pride

American fashionBlack History MonthEuropean fashionhairstylesPride

Fashioning, Self Fashioning: when inclusivity start from the hairdo

Léonard Autié was the famous hairdresser of the Versailles Court, the personal coiffeur of the queen Marie Antoinette. He was not only a hairdresser, but also a creator: that artist who can add innovation, surprise and inspiration, the trend-setter of incredibly elaborate baroque combings.

That an hairstyle as an expression of personality, taste, and culture is something we are pretty accustomed to nowadays. It is easy to understand when a haircut or hairdo is old and out of fashion, when it comes from subcultural groups or is linked to different traditions and different places.

Back in 1994, British art historian and writer Kobena Mercer published ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, an essay on Black studies. He particularly reflected on Black hair, and how much Western fashion has been “against” it in its natural and traditional styles, supporting a white-biassed image which penalised the black hairdos and their acceptance in mainstream society.

Black movements during the 1960s tended to reappropriate hairstyles that were typically of Black traditions, such as curly-perms and dreadlocks. They started being considered symbols of Black Pride, Black Power, and were used – or better, donned – to fight for a more inclusive idea of what is “beautiful”.

A relevant example was the exhibition Naturally ’62The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards. The show was held in Harlem and featured black models posing with their natural hairstyles, sustaining the value of a culture of beauty that they felt, if not directly rejected, almost invisible.

‘Invisible Beauty’ is also the title of a recent documentary by Bethann Hardison, one of the models of Naturally ’62. Bethann started her career as a mannequin back in the 1960s, and she is now a passionate activist for diversity in the whole fashion industry.

In 1973 she was also part of the so-called ‘Battle of Versailles’ – this battle between French and American designers certainly did not include the hair-creations by Léonard Autié. Instead, it was a fundraising fashion raising event for the renovation of the Palace. Fashion designers from Europe and North-America stormed the court, presenting their designs. A small group of African American women were also present as models ‘battling’ on the catwalk, modelling for young Stephen Burrows.

This event, now in the fashion history books, is surely one of the first to showcase inclusivity in the system – something we should revisit and reflect on today more than ever.