As long as I can remember, braided hairstyles have been a core part of my culture and identity as an African-American woman. From getting my hair cornrowed for school as a kid to experimenting with tribal braids and medium box braids as a teen, braids allow me to celebrate my heritage through self-expression. But as tribal braids have emerged as one of today’s biggest hair trends, I’ve watched them evolve from cultural tradition to mainstream fashion in complex ways.
In this article, I’ll reflect on my personal hair journey with tribal braids and how this iconic black style went from the neighborhoods to the runways. What are the origins of tribal braids and their ties to African culture? How have they been transformed by pop culture and the natural hair movement? And what does it mean now that tribal braids have been embraced by the luxury fashion world? Come along as I trace the twisting path that brought tribal braids from roots to runways.
My Early Memories of Tribal Braids
I first fell in love with tribal braids as a young black girl in the 90s. I remember flipping through my mom’s old Essence and Ebony magazines and marveling at the African supermodels like Iman and Alek Wek rocking sleek braids. To me, their braided hairstyles represented the epitome of black beauty, power and confidence. I longed to wear those regal braids one day too.
Eventually I got my wish! I have fond childhood memories of spending long Saturdays at the local African braiding shop getting my hair intricately cornrowed or braided. The salon felt like a sisterhood, where women bonded over the latest gossip while getting their hair done. My stylist would always finish off my braided look with colorful barrettes that made me feel like an African princess.
In my neighborhood, tribal braids were our normal – an expression of our culture and community. Back then, I never imagined how the rest of society perceived them.
Tribal Braids Enter Pop Culture – But Not Without Controversy
During the early 2000s, tribal braids started gaining traction in pop culture and beyond my black community. Bo Derek’s controversial cornrows in the movie “10” and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku era brought elements of tribal braids to the mainstream, often without properly crediting the African origins.
At my junior high school, I began noticing non-black classmates asking for braided “extensions” to get styles similar to black celebs the likes of Brandy and Alicia Keys. Soon tribal braids became a full fashion trend, yet many wore them without understanding the cultural context. As a young teen, I felt uneasy by this appropriation. My favorite rappers sang about braids “ghetto” and “hood” yet now my white friends saw them as edgy fashion.
The rise of celebrities like the Kardashian-Jenners wearing traditionally black hairstyles also catalyzed criticism and debate around cultural appropriation of braided styles. Were White and non-black influencers embracing appreciation or appropriation? As tribal braids flooded Instagram feeds, their origins seemed to get erased. For me, it was a reminder that while America loves black culture, it doesn’t always love black people.
Owning My Roots in College Through Tribal Braids
When I headed to my historically black college, I felt liberated to fully embrace my tribal braids again. After years of relaxers for “manageability”, I began transitioning back to my natural texture. I started regularly getting knotless braids, jumbo box braids, and Senegalese twists as a protective style. Sitting in the chair for hours surrounded by other black women made me feel connected to my roots.
In campus culture, tribal braids symbolized unity and solidarity with our African heritage. We sported them proudly at protests, football games, and campus events. My braids felt like a cultural crown – and I was part of a sisterhood of kings and queens. I realized that no amount of mainstreaming could erase what braids meant to me. They represented generations of resilient women before me, not just a passing trend.
The Natural Hair Movement and Tribal Braids as Self-Love
After college, I was heartened to see the natural hair movement blossom and open dialogues about the deeper meaning of black hairstyles. Bloggers, vloggers, and activists empowered black women to reclaim ownership of traditionally Black styles like box braids,locs, afros and tribal braids.
For me and many women, tribal braids symbolized self-love just as much as style. After a lifetime of messages that our natural hair was unprofessional, political or messy, tribal braids let us braid our hair anyway, unapologetically. The look celebrated the versatile beauty of textured hair and its possibilities. Rejecting relaxers and wearing tribal braids was an act of resistance in a world saying black hair must conform.
Seeing tribal braids go mainstream now brought a mix of emotions. I hoped society would learn the rich history and respect the culture. But I also found comfort in knowing tribal braids’ deeper meaning for black women like me. No trend could undo our generational connection to braiding and its role in our self-expression.
Tribal Braids Take Luxury Fashion Runways By Storm
In recent years, tribal braids made their high fashion debut, appearing on runways from Celine to Chanel. Top models like Joan Smalls and Dilone Otoni strutted braided styles historically worn by everyday black women and children.
Part of me smiled seeing tribal braids finally given regal treatment on global runways. But I questioned whether the fashion world gave proper credit to the origins or if it just became enamored with braids as an aesthetic. Were black creatives part of these decisions to style models in traditional black hairstyles? Did they weave in any of the cultural context?
While I’ll celebrate tribal braids being elevated to high art, I hope the fashion world also starts to elevate and listen to the black voices behind the style. Let’s open dialogues and collaborations between luxury brands and Afro hair communities. Together we can shape an industry that doesn’t just commodify bits of culture, but honors the people who created it. There is still work to do.
My Ongoing Hair Journey with Tribal Braids
Now as an adult, tribal braids remain an important part of my personal heritage and how I move through the world. They connect me to other black women across generations and continents. And they let me enjoy the simpler pleasures of braiding – creative expression, versatility, and ease without needing a relaxer.
Of course, I also enjoy seeing tribal braids become more accepted in society and have fun styling them in new ways. But their deeper symbolism still fuels my passion for braiding.
So while the world may see tribal braids as just another trend, for me they tell a story. My story. With each braid, I carry my ancestors, their vision for me, and their fight for black beauty to be seen. No runway can erase that truth. The roots of tribal braids run too deep.
So I will continue this tradition and pass down my love of braiding to younger generations. Let us keep braiding as an act of joy, resilience, and celebration of who we are. Our hair carries our history – so we must be its storytellers. And our braids still have so much left to tell.