Iconic African American Hair

For generations of women, these African American legends helped pave the way to self-acceptance by wearing their hair with the swagger of true glamour icons. From Josephine Baker’s flapper ringlets to Diana Ross’s disco days afro, hair was not only a form of creative expression, but it captured the cultural zeitgeist of entire social eras.

1Josephine Baker

With a crop cut flocked in “spit curls” (so known because sections were slicked in saliva and pin-curled to dry), Vaudeville star Josephine Baker’s look defined the 1920s flapper image. From performing bare-chested in her adopted city of Paris (Baker was born in St. Louis, MO) to serving as a French Resistance spy during World War II, this jazz baby’s short and lacquered crop communicated a brazen sense of liberation that women of all ethnicities and classes longed to emulate. “She continues to inspire—her lacquered finish was one of my references for Prada’s Spring/Summer 2011 collection,” says YouBeauty Hair Advisor Guido, who created the hair looks for that show.

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2Billie Holiday

The mid-century crooner was known for the gardenia flowers she pinned to the left side of her hair, though the style came as a result of a beauty blunder. Before headlining a show one night, Holiday accidentally seared her scalp with a curling iron, and hastily clipped a sprig of Gardenia flowers she found coat check girls selling at a club down the street to conceal the burn.

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Holiday fell in love with the fragrant flower, and made the final pinning a tradition for virtually every performance to follow. “When you think of Billie Holiday, you think of that white flower,” says Guido. The flower so came to symbolize the golden era of jazz, that it’s often worn by performers today whose goal it is to conjure a sense of vintage nostalgia.

3Tina Turner

It’s impossible to picture this Queen of Rock ‘n Roll in one of her high intensity performances without that fiery mane of lioness hair. “This pumped-up coif is legendary, and hairspray has got to do with it,” quips Guido. Big on volume and striped in bleach blonde highlights, Tina Turner’s trademark shag belies the strength of a woman who not only survived and overcame an abusive relationship, but who broke through the rock ‘n roll genre solo, as the first African American woman to truly—and definitely—make her mark.

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4Diana Ross

Even though this Detroit-born beauty may have risen to fame while donning gravity-defying beehive wigs as a member of The Supremes, it wasn’t until Diana Ross broke into a wildly successful solo career when she finally let her hair down. Often celebrated as the natural hair icon of all time (“This is THE afro style,” says Guido), the tight, textured curls that cascade like a headdress on either side of her face have come to symbolize not only the age of freedom-loving disco, but the proud embracement of ethnic hair in generations that followed.

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5Grace Jones

A regular at famed nightclub Studio 54 in the 70s, model-singer-actress Grace Jones was a Jamaican-born American transplant. Standing an inch under six feet and with strong cheekbones, Jones tested social boundaries by popularizing the androgynous look. “She’s got a striking face that can carry off anything, but it’s her attitude that supports it,” says Guido. Her square-cut hair style—which came to be known as the “flat top”—became widely popular with African American men in the 80’s, expanding the constraints of beauty and gender politics.

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6Chaka Khan

The Queen of Funk transitioned from celebrated front woman of the band Rufus to soul legend in a solo career, but one thing has never changed: the Chicago native’s penchant for “big, flowing, silky hair with volume like no other,” says Guido. Much like Diana Ross, Khan’s hair texture seemed to typify her music genre—this time, funk— communicating on stage a sense of sex appeal and confidence that marked the 70s era.

7Lisa Bonet

Born to an African American father and Jewish mother in San Francisco, Lisa Bonet may have gained fame in her role on The Cosby Show, but it’s been her longtime love for dreadlocks that have gained her adoration as a natural hair celebrity. “Her natural hair really spoke true to a movement that was happening in hair,” says Guido. Previously associated with tribal, Buddhist and Hindu wear, Bonet and former rocker husband of eight years, Lenny Kravitz, transitioned the rope-like style into a more modern, sexier connotation.

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From faded denim to shoulder pads and red pleather, the Queens and Brooklyn-born hip hop trio known as Salt ‘n Pepa not only pioneered the rap music genre, but their look came to symbolize the colorful excess of the 80s. “I love how bad it is, which makes it so good,” says Guido. “The mix of hair shapes—round and triangle—really epitomized the early hip hop style.” Equal parts fearless and daring, this group sure knew how to “Push It.”

9Erykah Badu

When Erykah Badu first emerged on the music scene in the late 90s, the bohemian feel of her neo-soul sound reflected in the brilliantly colored head wraps she chose to adorn her crown. Badu then kept style critics guessing with looks ranging from thick, wrapped dreadlocks to sky-high afros and even a completely shaved, bald look. “A woman known for many styles, she did retro throwback looks in new ways,” says Guido.

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10Lauryn Hill

In an era when chemical straightening and weaves are the norm for performers, reggae fusion sensation Lauryn Hill has been known to remain faithful to her natural roots. The New Jersey native’s semi free-formed dreadlocks have become just as much of a trademark as her soulful lyrics, bringing natural hair to the forefront of popular hair trends of the day. “Lauryn’s bouncy dreadlocks have quickly become an iconic style for a generation of African American girls, who are influenced by her strong image,” says Guido.