Anya Wassenberg
July 26, 2013

Hair Braiding: 5,000 Years of Style

Braids are back in fashion in a big way — if they ever really went out of style. Jennifer Lawrence rocked a single braid to the side in The Hunger Games and recently at Comic-Con, she sported a cute up-do that involved intricate braiding, giving a boost to the continued revival of the ancient practice.

At its simplest, braiding involves three strands of hair that are crossed over each other to create the braid – also called a plait. It can work with many more strands, although an odd number tends to work best. Throughout its 5,000 year history, the braiding of hair has served several functions: one practical and the others to do with style and social history. It’s an art that has sprung up in most of the world’s continents.

Here’s a look at braiding through the ages:


Photo credit: Emile Bayard

Photo credit: Emile Bayard

The background

The earliest known depiction of hair braiding was found at a burial site on the Nile river that’s believed to date from the first Dynasty of Pharaoh Menes, thought to be around 3,000 BCE.

While the fine, straight hair of the First Nations of the Americas or the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe can quickly and easily be twined into a single or double braid, the thick, luxuriantly curled hair common to African peoples, however, engendered the elaborate cornrow system of braiding and the countless variations that can be found throughout the continent.

Cornrows and other systems of braiding the hair down to the scalp were and are common in both sexes in many ethnic groups of Africa from the Tuaregs of the Saharan Desert to the Amhara of Ethiopia, the Yoruba of West Africa and the Bushmen of Southern Africa.

What’s unique

Because braiding African hair takes time and care, it developed as a social activity — an experience women of various generations shared with each other. Along with all the possible variations, specific styles and patterns of braiding were associated with social status and ethnicity — at one time you could literally look at someone going down the street and know about their background, family and marital status just by observing their hair.

African slaves in the Americas were forbidden from wearing their hair in cornrows; reclaiming traditional hairstyles became part of the African-American experience only in the last half century or so.

Not just for the girls

High-born ancient Egyptians of both sexes wore their hair in intricate arrangements of braids. During the later dynasties of the Egyptian empire, there was a trend against having body hair, so both sexes often shaved their own hair to wear wigs — which were also braided.


The background

The ancient Greeks developed elaborate hairstyles involving braided and curled strands, sometimes decorated with flowers or ribbons.

As with most Greek culture, the ancient Romans appropriated the custom and went even further, using false ringlets and cages they used to hold up the impossibly elaborate concoctions we now associate with that time period.

The Celtic people of ancient Great Britain and Western continental Europe were renowned for the long golden hair they often wore braided. Celtic women, somewhat similar to the ancient Greeks and Romans, often wore their hair in elaborate configurations of braids and decorations.

Braiding was common among many nomadic peoples such as the Vikings and other Germanic tribes.

What’s unique

For the ancient Greeks, Romans and Celts, the intricacy of the hairstyle was tied to social status. Only high-born women had the time and resources to have others braid their hair – it was a sign of the leisurely lifestyle that went along with high social status.

Long hair was prized in women during the Middle Ages and was common in many cultures, including Spanish, Dutch, Germanic and Italian. In many cases it was never cut and typically worn in two braids down each side.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, it became popular to wear long hair in three braids, one on each side and one down the middle. The braids were then looped and sometimes decorated with ribbons.

Not just for the girls

During the 1st century CE Roman writers described the “Suebian knot,” a hairstyle worn by men of the Suebi, a Germanic tribe. The hairstyle involved taking the front part of their long hair and creating a knot at the front of the head. It was said to make them look fiercer in battle and was also the mark of a freeborn man. Some of the archeological remains, like the so-called Osterby Man, the head of a man circa 70 to 220 CE discovered in what’s now Germany, show the knot to be a braid.

North America

The background

Long hair was prized and worn in one or two braids among many of the ethnic groups of North and South America, including the Cherokee, Sioux, Blackfoot Confederacy, Inca, Maya, Aztec and Olmec.

Many of the ethnic groups of North America in particular were largely nomadic and braiding their hair kept it cleaner and tangle-free.

What’s unique

While many people cite East Africa as the place where hair braiding is thought to have originated, it was also common among the indigenous people of the Americas, who had absolutely no contact with the African continent.

Not just for the girls

In some of the First Nations, long hair was prized among men in particular and worn in one or two braids. It symbolized power but also served the dual purpose of keeping long hair out of the way during battle.


The background

Braiding and lush, long hair seem to go together naturally and it was common in many Asian cultures from Japan to India. Indian culture was heavily influenced by the Greeks during the period from about 200 to 500 CE, and braiding the hair into various styles and configurations also became popular.

What’s unique

In traditional Chinese culture, unmarried women wear their hair, which is considered an inheritance from their parents, long and braided.

In Japan, unmarried women also wore their hair in one or two braids while married women wore their hair up in a bun.

Not just for the girls

In ancient India, men were actually more likely to wear their hair braided than women. In some of the ancient Asian and Middle Eastern ethnic groups such as the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians, men braided their beards as well as the hair on their heads.

In China during the 17th century, men were required by law (under penalty of execution for treason) to shave the hair at the front of the head above the temples and wear the remainder in one long braid called a queue. The restriction was imposed on the Han Chinese (an ethnic group which makes up more than 95 percent of today’s Chinese population) by the ruling Qing Dynasty.

When the Qing Dynasty ended in the early 1910s, so did the hairstyle. Aisin-Gioro Puyi , the last Emperor of China, cut his queue in 1922 and effectively ended the practice.