Afro Hairstyles Back in the Spotlight
Celebrity hairstylist Ted Gibson breaks down the trend and gives tips on how to achieve variations on the look.
Afro hair styles are once again in the beauty and fashion spotlight.
Thumb through the pages of the coveted September issues — Vogue, Allure, Marie Claire, InStyle, Essence, W and more — and you’ll see myriad styles of afros from sophisticated to sweet to edgy. Oscar winner and multiple-time Vogue cover star Lupita Nyong'o wears her now-signature afro hairstyle not just in her high-profile cosmetics campaign for Lancôme, but in her new campaign for jeweler Tiffany & Co, too.
The new fall NARS Cosmetics campaign features African-Parisian model Aya Jones in a halo-like style that seems to reference the mood of '70s counterculture. Style star Solange Knowles and musician Esperanza Spalding are turning up the volume, too.
Afros, along with the rich, cultural history and style-making legacy of women of the African Diaspora, have been a force for millennia. But in modern times, the style has come in and out of the U.S. mass-market spotlight. “Fashion and hair always dictate each other, right now it’s a little bit back to the '70s, denim and more and more texture,” says hairstylist Ted Gibson, who has worked with Tessa Thompson, Serena Williams and Leslie Jones.
The natural hair movement has given rise to a wealth of how-to websites, YouTube channels and blogs. Patrice Grell Yursik, aka Afrobella of the popular blog of the same name, agrees that the afro goes hand in hand with the current retro aesthetic in fashion. “Especially the NARS campaign … it’s a beautiful throwback that I’m seeing more and more,” she says. “What is really cool about it is for a while the natural hair that was being celebrated in mainstream media was really a looser curl pattern. Bringing the afro back embraces the range of textures that our hair comes in and celebrates the variety of our beauty.”
The afro gained popularity during the Black Is Beautiful movement of the '60s and '70s, but the latest resurgence is not necessarily tied to the political climate of today, Yursik says. “The natural hair movement really started online around 2007, 2008 and Black Lives Matter has come up because of police brutality … I would never want to reduce the Black Lives Matter movement’s message to being physically symbolized by hair. That message is so much more meaningful and important,” she explains.
For some women, wearing their hair naturally in an afro is about rebelling against the idea of using a caustic chemical to make hair do something it doesn’t naturally want to do. It's saying, "Why am I listening to these standards of beauty that I don’t physically adhere to and have to put myself through rigorous treatments to upkeep?" Yursik says. "I’m having more and more readers of all ages embrace their natural beauty and realize that they no longer have to look a certain way to be accepted in this world and seen as beautiful.”
Gibson agrees. “There are no rules, which I think is really beautiful about this time that we’re living in. We can do what we think is right for ourselves and present that to the world," he says. "You can wear your hair in its natural state one day or bone straight the next. It’s not about judgment but versatility and doing what you feel.” He references Yara Shahidi from the ABC show Black-ish as someone who really has fun changing up her look.
Online styling idea resources include afrobella.com, naturallycurly.com, curlynikki.com, sportyafros.com and blackgirllonghair.com. Here, Gibson breaks down a few different ways leading ladies are rocking the afro, with tips about how to perfect variations on the style.
WINNING LADIES: Viola Davis (left) at the 2015 Emmys; Lupita Nyong'o at the 2014 Oscars. (Photos: Getty Images)
Think: Lupita Nyong’o at the 2014 Oscars and Viola Davis at the 2015 Emmys and Oscars
Tips: “Shine is really important on the red carpet for an afro because curlier hair tends to absorb light,” says Gibson.
Product recommendations: Shine-enhancing and moisturizing products including L'Oreal Professionnel Mythic Oil ($32, birchbox.com)
Think: Jourdan Dunn on the February 2016 Vogue Brazil cover and playwright-actress Danai Gurira.
Tips: “It’s all about hairspray and control," says Gibson of the classic version of the style. "You want to be able to have a certain kind of shape and define and hold the shape."
Product recommendations: Sebastian Shaper Plus Hairspray ($18.95, ulta.com)
GEN Z VISION
Tips: Puffs and glitter are fun ways to contemporize an afro, says Gibson: “Try a thick or thin headband, jewels in the hair … put a part in it and then wear a clip."
GRACEFUL: Grace Jones at the launch of documentary 'Annabel's: A String of Naked Lightbulbs.' (Photo: Getty Images)
Think: Grace Jones
Tips: “Shape is important for this particular category. Whether it’s a Mohawk or bi-level. A part also gives an afro a little more of an edge, as does a bold hair color,” says Gibson, adding that hair extensions can be used to create edgier looks.
Recommendations: Find a stylist who is an expert at cutting curly hair.
CLASSIC: Angela Davis at the annual Brooklyn tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014. (Photo: Getty Images)
Think: (Of course) Angela Davis, Pam Grier. Also, Barbra Streisand (in her afro phase). For retro-meets-2016, Solange Knowles and Esperanza Spalding rule.
Tips: “Have patience. You need for it to grow a certain length and that takes a little bit of time,” says Gibson, who recommends a healthy diet and lifestyle along with vitamins. For "amazing texture and natural height, a good conditioner is also needed.”
Product recommendations: Kerastase Masquintense ($20.50, kerastase-usa.com)