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Black Women and Beauty Culture in 20th-Century America

Summary and Keywords

Black beauty culture developed in the context of widespread disparagement of black men and women in images produced by whites, and black women’s exclusion from mainstream cultural institutions, such as beauty contests, which defined beauty standards on a national scale. Though mainstream media rarely represented black women as beautiful, black women’s beauty was valued within black communities. Moreover many black women used cosmetics, hair products and styling, and clothing to meet their communities’ standards for feminine appearance. At the beginning of the 20th century, the black press, which included newspapers, general magazines, and women’s magazines, showcased the beauty of black women. As early as the 1890s, black communities organized beauty contests that celebrated black women’s beauty and served as fora for debating definitions of black beauty. Still, generally, but not always, the black press and black women’s beauty pageants favored women with lighter skin tones, and many cosmetics firms that marketed to black women sold skin lighteners. The favoring of light skin was nonetheless debated and contested within black communities, especially during periods of heightened black political activism. In the 1910s and 1920s and later in the 1960s and 1970s, social movements fostered critiques of black aesthetics and beauty practices deemed Eurocentric. One focus of criticism was the widespread black practice of hair straightening—a critique that has produced an enduring association between hairstyles perceived as natural and racial pride. In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, African migration and the transnational dissemination of information via the internet contributed to a creative proliferation of African American hairstyles. While such styles display hair textures associated with African American hair, and are celebrated as natural hairstyles, they generally require the use of hair products and may incorporate synthetic hair extensions.

Beauty culture provided an important vehicle for African American entrepreneurship at a time when racial discrimination barred black women from other opportunities and most national cosmetics companies ignored black women. Black women’s beauty-culture business activities included beauticians who provided hair care in home settings and the extremely successful nationwide and international brand of hair- and skin-care products developed in the first two decades of the 20th century by Madam C. J. Walker. Hair-care shops provided important places for sharing information and community organizing. By the end of the 20th century, a few black-owned hair-care and cosmetics companies achieved broad markets and substantial profitability, but most declined or disappeared as they faced increased competition from or were purchased by larger white-owned corporations.

Keywords: beauty, beautician, black, braids, African American, afro, hair care, cosmetics, beauty contests, entrepreneurs

A Context of Disparagement

Beauty culture comprises an array of techniques, professions, institutions, and judgments relating to ideals of physical appearance. Much of the paid and unpaid labor involved in black women’s beauty culture is focused on hair care. Other aspects of black beauty culture include cosmetics, beauty pageants, fashion, and the representation of beauty ideals in mass media. 20th-century black beauty culture developed in the context of widespread disparagement of black men and women in images produced by whites, black women’s exclusion from cultural institutions that defined beauty standards on a national scale, and racial segregation of hair-care services. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, whites created and disseminated disparaging and ridiculous images of black men, women, boys, and girls through advertising, mass media, book illustrations, and an endless array of objects sold for practical use or home decoration. The stereotypes used in these images originated in the era of slavery and its immediate aftermath, when degrading depictions of blacks contributed to the defense of slavery and to ideologies of white supremacy1. African facial features were made grotesque through caricature. One of the most common images of black women was of the “mammy” figure depicted as a sympathetic but comic character, whose fat body, dark skin, and bandana head wrap distanced her from Eurocentric feminine beauty norms for comparatively thinner bodies, pale skin, and flowing hair.2 Illustrations of black people created by whites often depicted dark-complexioned blacks grinning with eyes open wide, a representational convention designed to highlight, and ridicule, the contrast between the dark skin and the whiteness of eyes and teeth. Caricatures of black children depicted their thick curly hair as a source of humor.3

Amid the broader representation of black women as unattractive, a small number of light-skinned black women began to be shown as beauties, first as chorines in vaudeville shows and musical theater in the first two decades of the 20th century, and later in all-black films produced from the 1920s through 1950s. The careers of even the most successful of the film actresses, such as Nina Mae McKinney, Lena Horne, and Dorothy Dandridge, were severely limited due to Hollywood producers’ unwillingness to provide lead roles for black women. Black actresses appeared either as entertainers in cameos detached from a larger narrative, or, like Nina Mae McKinney in the 1929 Hallelujah, or Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 Carmen Jones, as sexy temptresses who ruined good men’s lives. These films offered the public images of beautiful black women, but linked black beauty with dangerous sensuality and showcased as beauties only those black women who had light tan skin, wavy hair, and thin lips.

Black beauty culture developed in this context as a form of political contestation, a source of pleasure, a practice of self-making, and the basis of livelihoods. Though disparaging images of blacks, and Eurocentric beauty standards, pervaded popular culture and undoubtedly influenced the way many African Americans saw themselves, media images never entirely defined black aesthetics. Nevertheless, the exclusion of most black women from dominant standards of beauty and the pervasiveness of disparaging images of black people in popular culture made beauty standards a political matter for African Americans. When black activists and writers challenged white supremacy, they often explicitly addressed the racism of dominant beauty standards. African Americans appreciated black women’s beauty and the beauty inherent in dark skin, tightly curled hair, and full lips; they celebrated black beauty in illustrations, literature, song lyrics, and African American beauty contests.

African American Beauty Pageants

African Americans organized beauty contests for black women as far back as the 1890s.4 20th-century black beauty contests were organized by newspapers, fraternal organizations, and the music industry to provide entertainment and to raise money by increasing the circulation of a sponsoring newspaper, or selling tickets to a fraternal order’s event or a commercial show. Beauty pageants sponsored by African Americans celebrated black women’s beauty in eras when similar white contests excluded black women and when disparaging caricatures of black women appeared frequently in mainstream media. Therefore beauty pageants organized within black communities were at once frivolous affairs and ways to resist a nationally dominant racist culture. This point was made explicitly by the NAACP in 1968 when it organized the Miss Black America pageant as a way of protesting the Miss America Pageant’s refusal to include black contestants.5

While on the one hand African American beauty pageants posed challenges to white supremacy, on the other they often seemed complicit in supporting Eurocentric beauty standards. Black women’s beauty pageants frequently favored women with lighter skin tones, but the bias against dark skin tones was challenged within and outside of the contests. For example, on some occasions when pageant organizers selected women with light complexions as winners, audiences vocally objected or readers wrote letters of protest to the editors of African American newspapers. During periods of heightened black political activism, the aesthetics of African American beauty contests became more inclusive. Darker women were encouraged by their friends and family or by contest organizers to enter the contests, and some were crowned as beauties. Black families, communities, and institutions therefore functioned to produce distinct aesthetics that resisted, to some degree, dominant beauty standards.

The Importance of Good Grooming

Black men and women gave attention to their dress and to the styling of their hair to display personal dignity within a society that was likely to devalue them. In the early decades of the 20th century, middle-class black women associated good grooming with protecting and elevating the standing of the race. Spokeswomen for organizations with black, middle-class membership, such as the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), often addressed the importance of appearance. They argued that whites would judge the entire black race based on the appearance of individual black women, and therefore all black women were obliged to adhere to middle-class standards for hair care and attire. Regardless of their class positions, many black women used dress, hair care, and cosmetics to conform to black community standards for feminine appearance. While rural women used cosmetics, often obtaining them via mail order, beauty products and techniques were especially important to city dwellers, as they were associated with an urban look.6 Beginning in 1910 and extending through 1970, six million blacks moved from southern states to cities in the North, Midwest, and West in what is known as the Great Migration. Black migrants fled the South in search of opportunities for employment, expanded civil rights, freedom from the everyday humiliation of Jim Crow laws, and escape from the brutality of white supremacist violence.7 Black women migrants used beauty products and techniques to transform themselves for what they hoped would be better lives. Eager to find better-paying and less menial work in the North, and to participate in the amusements available in vibrant black communities in northern cities, black women migrants adopted new styles to distance themselves from their rural pasts.8

Beauty Products

Black women used facial cosmetics and hair products to meet their communities’ standards of feminine appearance. Women sought a variety of results from skin-care products. The most controversial products were skin-bleaching creams such as Nadinola, which promised to lighten skin. Given the preference for light skin shades in both black communities and the broader culture, and the accompanying disparagement of dark skin tones, many black women yearned for lighter skin. Black women also used skin-care products to treat or cover acne, achieve a uniform skin tone, or to correct the appearance of dry or oily skin. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, some nationally distributed, white-owned manufacturers marketed skin-bleaching creams to black customers, but did not develop facial cosmetics in shades designed to match the skin tones of black women. The black-owned Overton Hygiene Company was among the first manufacturers to develop facial cosmetics specifically for black women and able to distribute its products via major retail drug stores.9 The company, established by Anthony Overton in 1898 as a manufacturer of baking powder, expanded to create face powders in hues suitable for a range of black women’s skin tones. Shades eventually included Nut Brown, High Brown, Olive-Tone, Pink, Brunette, and Flesh Pink. The success of Overton’s products attracted competitors, including white-owned firms that developed cosmetics with names like “Golden Brown” and placed advertisements for them in black newspapers.10

At the beginning of the 20th century, white-owned manufacturers of hair-care products marketed hair straighteners, such as Ozonized Ox Marrow and Curl-I-Cure, to African American women, who learned about them via advertisements in the black press.11 The advertisements treated the tightly curled texture of African American hair as an unsightly problem that needed a remedy.12 Black women entered the hair-care-product market by developing products designed specifically to work with the textures of African American hair and selling them to women in their communities. The most successful of these entrepreneurs expanded their reach into regional or national markets through mail order, or by hiring sales agents, and distributing their products through retail outlets. The products they created included hair straighteners, but their approach to selling emphasized health and racial pride rather than correction of a shameful problem.13

Annie Turnbo Malone and Sarah Breedlove were the two most successful of these early 20th-century hair-product entrepreneurs. Breedlove built an enormously prosperous business using the professional name Madam C. J. Walker. Beginning with meager resources, Malone and Breedlove established companies that manufactured hair-care products on an industrial scale with nationwide distribution. Malone developed hair treatments that softened and moisturized hair, which could be used with a pressing device to temporarily eliminate tight curls. She dubbed the products, tool, and techniques the Poro system, and contracted with legions of agents and beauticians to bring her system to customers. As Madam C. J. Walker, Breedlove built a similar hair-care-product business that made her the wealthiest black woman of her generation. These companies, which delivered products to black women through mail order or via the hands of beauticians, achieved their greatest successes in the 1910s and 1920s.

Black Women and Beauty Culture in 20th-Century AmericaClick to view larger

Figure 1. Cover page, Poro Hair and Beauty Culture, 1922. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, the New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections, 1237936.

Products developed by Malone and Walker were used by women across the United States and in the Caribbean and South America. They created pomades designed to improve the condition of scalps and hair, to foster hair growth, and to be used in combination with heated implements to straighten hair. Black women generally straightened their hair by coating it with a protective layer of pomade and then combing it with a heated metal comb, known as a “hot comb.” This time-consuming, somewhat costly, and potentially painful technique temporarily transformed the hair’s texture. When straightened hair had contact with water, its original texture was restored. As a result, hot comb use had the effect of discouraging women from engaging in activities like swimming or participation in vigorous, sweat-producing exercise, which would place their hair in contact with moisture.

Hair straightening was normative for black women in the first half of the 20th century, but it was less common for black men. Throughout the 20th century, most black men did not alter the texture of their hair and wore it closely cropped. In the 1940s and 1950s, however, many black male entertainers and men attracted to more daring styles wore it long enough to form into a swirl of curls at the top of the forehead known as a “conk.” African Americans have a range of hair textures. Some male entertainers had naturally wavy hair; others achieved the desired look by straightening their hair with harsh lye formulations. Hair straightened chemically would not return to its original texture. The conks of performers who danced vigorously under hot lights maintained their loose wavy texture. In the second half of the 20th century, manufacturers developed milder chemical products that permanently straightened hair while decreasing damage to the hair and scalp, and have successfully marketed them, primarily to black women.

Entrepreneurship and Employment

Before the 20th century, men were more likely than women to regularly visit a shop to receive grooming. Few American women, regardless of race, purchased hair-care services. Men who could afford it visited barbers weekly to have their faces shaved. In the South before the 20th century, it was common for black barbers to shave the faces of white customers, in shops where black customers were unwelcome.14 This pattern changed in the first decade of the 20th century when, after 1903, the widespread availability of King Gillette’s inexpensive safety razor transformed shaving into a task most men could accomplish for themselves.15 At the same time that black barbers lost the customers who used to visit them for shaves, recent German and Italian immigrants entered the barbering trade and were able to use race prejudice to displace black barbers from the business of providing haircuts to white men.16

Black women’s beauty-culture entrepreneurship at the beginning of the 20th century began with a focus on the development of products, which led to the need for services. Both Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C. J. Walker were strong advocates for black women’s entrepreneurship and generous philanthropists who supported a wide range of African American causes from education to religion to social justice. In the first three decades of the 20th century, most black women, regardless of their marital status, needed to work to support themselves and their family members. Employment discrimination and limited access to education restricted black women to poorly paid, arduous, and often degrading employment in domestic work, seasonal agricultural labor, or the lowest paid factory work.17 Black women who worked in white homes were vulnerable to sexual assault and other forms of abuse. Beauty culture provided an important alternative livelihood. Malone and Walker contributed to black women’s well-being while building profitable companies and creating employment opportunities for multitudes of salespersons, beauty-culture educators, and beauticians.

Before the development of African American beauty colleges, hairdressing techniques were taught informally by practitioners to apprentices. Malone, Walker, and Sarah Spencer Washington developed schools as extensions of their manufacturing businesses, in a process that certified only the students who graduated from their schools as legitimate practitioners of their hair-care systems. Malone established Poro Beauty College to train and certify women in the Poro system. Similarly Walker opened Leila College to train women to use the Walker system. Washington followed them by developing a line of products under the brand name Apex, and opening schools for the training of beauticians in several states. Other African American beauty entrepreneurs established schools that were not tied to particular products.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, increased prosperity, urbanization, the development of hair-care products and techniques, as well as the popularization of shorter hairstyles for women, contributed to the development of a flourishing industry in women’s hair-care services. The early black manufacturers of skin and hair-care products reached the pinnacle of their success in the 1920s, and then declined in the 1930s, but the beauty-education industry continued to perform relatively well during the Depression. As other forms of employment disappeared, women continued to support themselves and their families by selling hair-care services. Many relied on informally acquired skills to straighten and style hair. However, both black and white owners of larger beauty shops, beauty schools, and members of beauty-trade associations sought to strengthen their position, eliminate lower-priced and informally trained competitors, and increase their occupational prestige by lobbying for state regulation.18 Beginning with the licensing of cosmetologists in Illinois in 1927, states began to regulate the industry.19 By the end of the 1930s, most states had adopted codes that required a minimum number of hours of formal training for practitioners who washed, cut, curled, or straightened hair. Required hours varied from state to state, ranging from several hundred to over two thousand.20 When black men and women faced devastating job losses in the 1930s, many, especially women, turned to hairdressing as a way to earn income. While some barbers and beauticians continued to work without obtaining licenses, many who sought careers as hairdressers enrolled in beauty colleges.

Black beauty-product manufacturers, beauty educators, and beauticians joined together in associations to professionalize their field by advocating for increased educational requirements and the banning of nonlicensed practitioners. The most enduring of the associations was the National Beauty Culturist League (NBCL). As black businesswomen worked within a legal and economic framework dominated by whites, the professional issues that mattered to beauty culturists could not be separated from race. One of the ways in which black beauty culturists worked to advance the position of black women in the profession was through challenging the Eurocentrism of state regulatory boards and practices. The NBCL pushed to have black women appointed to regulatory and examining boards to ensure that the needs of black beauticians and their customers were represented. Despite their efforts, in some states, the training required of licensed beauticians was concentrated on techniques suitable only for straight hair.

Black community norms for personal appearance encouraged women with some measure of disposable income to regularly visit beauticians to have their hair washed, straightened, and styled. Racial segregation, in its legal and informal manifestations, meant that white beauty salons would not serve black women. Therefore black beauticians found steady demand for their services, even during hard times. Black beauticians worked at very different scales. Some carried their tools with them as they went door to door to provide hair care to customers. Many launched businesses with minimal investment by inviting customers into their homes where they could wash and straighten hair in their own kitchens. Bringing paid work into the home had the additional advantage of permitting women to care for their children while earning income. With more resources, a beautician could rent space within a beauty shop. Those with still greater capital opened their own shops. All of these arrangements provided black women with opportunities to support themselves and their families independently of white control. In the first half of the 20th century, black beauticians were likely to have used products produced by black-owned companies to treat their customers’ hair, to have received their training from representatives of black hair-care-product companies or from a black-owned beauty school, and have worked either for themselves or in a black-owned beauty shop. Among other things, this provided black beauticians with a degree of freedom for expressions of political dissent.

The companies that Malone and Walker built were weakened by the Great Depression and never recovered their strength, even as the practice of straightening hair continued to be normative for black women. With their demise, the integrated systems that linked the manufacture of products, distribution, training, and hair care to black-owned companies disappeared. Even without such a vertically integrated system, a single black-owned company, Johnson Products, nonetheless achieved great success from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s via a diversified line of products. Johnson’s products ranged from Afro Sheen, which appealed to women who wished to wear natural styles, to Ultra Sheen, a chemical hair straightener. The company’s position as the leader within the black hair-care market in the United States eroded when the largest multinational beauty and hair-care firms expanded their product lines to reach black consumers.21 Likewise Anthony Overton’s face-powder company, which was extremely successful in the 1920s, waned in later decades. It continued to operate until 1983, when it finally succumbed to a crowded field. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, black women tended to spend more per capita on beauty products than national averages, often buying products manufactured by multinational corporations. By 2000, the multinational corporation L’Oreal controlled over 25 percent of the U.S. market in what the industry termed “ethnic cosmetics.” By the end of the 20th century, the manufacture of black hair-care products was not a predominantly black industry.

Aesthetics and Social Movements

African American aesthetics were influenced by but never identical with dominant white standards of beauty. While African Americans developed and maintained distinctive aesthetics, black perspectives on standards for personal appearance were nonetheless diverse. For example, black beauty standards could differ by class, region, and political orientation. Straightened hair was widely adopted by black women in the 1920s. By the 1950s black community standards of good grooming required black women to straighten their hair. As soon as the practice became widely adopted, some within black communities challenged straightening, along with skin bleaching, as expressions of racial shame. Thus the practice of hair straightening, which was criticized by some in the early 20th century as frivolous, unnatural, or imitative of whites, was adopted by many black women as a signifier of respectability and racial pride.

Critics of hair straightening voiced a minority view within black communities until the mid- to late 1960s when young women followed the lead of black women artists and activists by rejecting hair straightening. They cut their hair into short styles that soon were known as “afros” or “naturals.” These styles provided a generation of black youth a way to embody racial pride, reject Eurocentrism, and express identification with Africa and Africans. The styles were initially opposed by many older African Americans for whom unstraightened hair signified dangerous rebellion, seemed unkempt, or appeared unfeminine when worn by women. By the late 1960s and 1970s, popular styles for men’s and women’s afros required longer hair, combed into a large round shape, and groomed using products that came onto the market specifically to care for unstraightened African American hair. By 1970 the afro had become less polarizing. It was adopted widely by black women as a style rather than a political statement. Afro wigs were available in stores. Unstraightened hair was recognized as beautiful by many African American youth as well as their elders. As a style, however, the afro became subject to changes in fashion. The large round afro lost favor among most of its wearers by the end of the 1970s. When it reappears, it is often treated as a retro look.

The critique of straightened hair that inspired the afro continues to shape black aesthetics. Throughout the 20th century, young black girls have worn their hair braided as a style perceived to be appropriate for children. From as early as the 1940s through the beginning of the 1960s, most adult black women adopted straightened hairstyles rather than braids as part of the transition to adulthood. This changed to some degree in the 1960s, when adult women began to wear intricate braids as an Afrocentric alternative to either short naturals or straightened hair. Dreadlocks, a style in which the hair is trained to form long thick interconnected strands, were popularized in Jamaica by Rastafarians, and have become an African diasporic style. Black stylists have developed locking techniques to create an array of styles based on evenly spaced dreadlocks. These styles continued to be popular among black men and women through the end of the 20th century and beyond. Likewise, the popularity of braided hair, which sometimes incorporates artificial extensions and beads, continued into the 21st century. Despite the critique of hair straightening, and the turn to Afrocentric styles such as naturals, braids, and locks, many late 20th-century black women straightened and styled their hair to achieve an appearance often deemed attractive and professional. The perception that straightened hairstyles were professional, while drawing on longstanding African American aesthetics regarding the appearance of feminine respectability, was also reinforced in workplaces where black women had to conform to appearance norms established by whites. In the 1980s workplaces ranging from airlines to hotels to television news programs barred employees from wearing braids at work.22 Black women resisted these workplace prohibitions by filing employment discrimination complaints, and in some instances drawing supporters who picketed their employers. The responses of courts and fair-employment-practices agencies have varied, sometimes recognizing the barring of braids as discriminatory, and at other times upholding the prohibition.23

Beauty, Race, and Politics in Print Media

In the first half of the 20th century, black women were not included among the pages of mainstream beauty and fashion magazines, but as early as 1891, African Americans published women’s magazines in which African American women were represented as beautiful and fashionable.24 Black women’s magazines tended to be short-lived, but even when these magazines ceased publishing, black women, but usually only those with light skin, continued to be showcased as beauties in illustrations in black newspapers and general magazines.

The favoring of light skin was contested within black communities, especially during moments of heightened black political activism. In the 1910s and 1920s, several factors converged to encourage racial pride and reconsideration of aesthetics. Conventional beauty standards were challenged by artists and writers of the flourishing artistic and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Marcus Garvey organized a mass black nationalist movement under the banner of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Garvey and his followers praised black women’s beauty, urged a strong identification with Africa, criticized hair straightening, and questioned the racial loyalty and challenged the elitism of light-skinned African Americans.

Black nationalist political organizations encouraged black entrepreneurship, and this led to contradictions within black publications regarding black beauty culture.25 Black beauticians’ financial viability depended on hair straightening, yet they represented one of the most important avenues for black entrepreneurship. Furthermore, advertisements for hair-straightening products and skin lighteners provided crucial support for black publications. Manufacturers placed advertisements in black general-interest magazines as well as more overtly political publications such as The Messenger, a black socialist magazine of the 1920s, despite intermittent tension between the advertising of hair-straightening products and skin-bleaching creams and editorial positions taken against their use.26

In the mid-1920s, after Marcus Garvey was incarcerated and in 1927 deported to Jamaica, the movement that he built declined. The economic depression that followed two years later sapped the energy of Harlem’s artistic movements. The decline of black political and artistic movements dampened social critique including challenges to Eurocentric beauty norms. When some economic vitality returned to black communities in the 1940s and 1950s, it had become entirely normative for black women, regardless of class, to straighten their hair. In the mid-20th century, Ebony magazine attracted a nationwide African American readership. The magazine’s showcasing of fashion helped to disseminate black, middle-class aesthetics. Ebony and other black periodicals celebrated the successes of the small number of black women who broke through racial barriers to be the first African American Hollywood stars, runway models, or beauty queens. All of these women had light complexions and straightened hair, and they set the standard for black beauty.

Participation in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s radicalized a generation of young African Americans and inspired them to rethink their aesthetics and everyday practices such as hair straightening.27 Women in the performing arts affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement and movement activists themselves were among the first to experiment with ways to wear unstraightened hair, beginning around 1960. Wearing short unstraightened hair was so unconventional for black women that the early adopters had to go to men’s barbershops to have their hair cut. Images of black women wearing unstraightened hair became visible in news coverage of protests. They provided the look of political militancy but were not yet widely recognized as beauties. In the mid-1960s, more and more women within and around social-movement organizations and college campuses began to wear styles they called naturals or afros. They began to see their freshly washed hair textures as beautiful, and their understandings of the meaning of straightened hair rapidly transformed. In 1966 Ebony magazine featured a dark-complexioned woman wearing a short natural on its cover and announced the arrival of “The Natural Look.” Though the style had circulated in black communities for more than five years, it could still spark controversy. Ebony published readers’ letters in the next monthly issue in which supporters praised the style as the embodiment of racial pride and detractors expressed the view that unstraightened black hair was unattractive and reflected poor grooming. As anti-racist movements shifted their focus from gaining inclusion in formerly white institutions to working for black autonomy, black activists increasingly looked to Africa as a source of cultural inspiration. Ebony was slow to respond to the trend. The clothing shown in its fashion pages infused European style with a unique flair, incorporating flamboyant designs, combinations of materials, and bright colors. While this represented a specifically African American aesthetic, there were few direct references to Africa or African clothing in Ebony’s fashion features.

In the latter half of the century, mainstream magazines infrequently published images of black women. All of the models presented on the covers of American Vogue were white until August 1974, when Vogue featured Beverly Johnson. Essence began publication in 1970 to provide a beauty, fashion, and lifestyle magazine specifically for black women. The magazine tapped into a previously unfulfilled desire and continued to publish into the 21st century.

Beauty Business and Social Activism

Early 20th-century African American manufacturers of hair-care products and cosmetics were generous philanthropists and advocates for social justice. Madam C. J. Walker supported numerous community organizations and lent her voice and stature to anti-lynching campaigns. Annie Turnbo Malone gave considerable financial support to branches of national organizations like the Y.M.C.A. and Red Cross that served black communities, and to institutions that educated and cared for black children and youth. Sarah Washington supported organizations for black children and youth and during a particularly harsh winter during the Depression provided coal so that the poor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, could heat their homes.28 Black beauticians’ professional organizations took public stands urging the government to do more to fight racial injustice.29 Some of the most ardent supporters of Garvey’s UNIA and of the later Civil Rights Movement were beauticians.

While the most successful businesses in the black beauty industry could work to advance racial justice through philanthropy, many beauticians and owners of small, neighborhood beauty shops played important roles as civil-rights activists. Before the enactment and enforcement of civil-rights legislation in the late 1960s, white supremacy was upheld by law in southern states. Blacks employed by whites risked losing their jobs if they became involved in civil-rights activism by working for voting rights, or equal access to education and public accommodations. Some of the women who took leadership roles in the Civil Rights Movement, such as voting-rights activist Bernice Robinson, had a greater degree of autonomy because they were beauticians.30 Indeed the absence of whites from black beauty shops as employers or customers and the trusting relationships beauticians sustained with their customers enabled beauty and barber shops to function as institutions whose importance reached far beyond the work of personal beautification. Civil-rights organizations, politicians, and public-health workers have turned to beauty shops to disseminate information within black communities. The alignment of black beauty and barber shops with social change was often visible in their décor, where posters demanding social justice hung on walls alongside photographs of the latest fashions in hairstyles.

Creative Proliferation of Styles

In the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, while aesthetics vary and debates continue regarding the meaning of straightened hair, African Americans continue to place great value on stylized hair for women.31 Technological innovation, African migration, and the transnational dissemination of information via the internet have contributed to a creative proliferation of techniques and products associated with African American hairstyles perceived as natural. While the manufacture of black hair-care products by black-owned companies declined in the 1930s, black hair-care services remain in the hands of black beauticians, and beauty salons continue to be important small businesses within black communities, providing livelihoods to black women as business owners and employees, through a “racial enclave economy.”32 Migration to the United States from Africa has sharply increased since the 1970s. African women, especially migrants from Togo and Senegal, have established livelihoods by providing hair-braiding services to black women. The demanding work of creating intricate braids provided income for women who may have been blocked from other forms of employment due to their immigration status and limited English.33 Their entry into the beauty-culture industry has engendered some tension and competition between African American beauticians and recent African migrants.34 In the late 20th century, new conflicts emerged related to regulation when increasing numbers of black women began to adopt unstraightened hair styles that relied on twisting together strands of hair. Practitioners who offered braiding and locking services at shops that did not straighten hair objected to being subjected to licensing under regulations entirely oriented to the care of straight or straightened hair. In these conflicts black beauticians trained in hair-straightening techniques and those trained in braiding and locking were on different sides. The issue was being addressed at state levels at the end of the 20th century, with some states exempting braiders from regulation, and others revising existing regulation to cover braiding and locking. The spread of low-priced corporate-owned haircutting chains have cut into the business of salons that catered primarily to white women.35 These chains have had less of an effect on black beauticians whose skilled treatment and styling of African American women’s hair across the range of straightened and unstraightened styles continues to be valued by their customers.

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on black beauty culture interweaves histories of commerce and racial politics. Several historians and sociologists began to publish on black beauty culture in the 1990s, in part as a response to earlier feminist scholarship on beauty that had given insufficient attention to black women.36 Taking from feminist scholarship the importance of documenting and analyzing embodied experiences, the literature on black beauty culture also drew on British cultural studies’ theorization of identity, which complicated popular concepts such as “authentic” and “natural.”37 The critique of hair straightening that emerged from the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the mid-20th century has been an important point of departure for scholars whose work revealed the layered and multiple meanings of black hair-care practices.

Much of the scholarship regarding black women’s beauty culture begins the narrative at the end of the 19th century with the life and work of successful black women entrepreneurs, especially Madam C. J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone.38 These histories chart Malone and Walker’s extraordinary rise from poverty to extreme wealth in the first two decades of the 20th century and their roles as entrepreneurs who contributed to the employment of tens of thousands of black women. The histories address the complex relationship between black beauty culture entrepreneurs and the racial politics of appearance. Specifically these works consider how to understand the practice of hair straightening in relation to issues of racial pride. Historians agree that black beauty entrepreneurs’ involvement with hair straightening, which was only one among many products and services they developed, must be seen in a context that is broader than the purported association of hair straightening with racial shame. Expressions of racial pride were central to black women entrepreneurs’ marketing, even as they sold products that some of their contemporaries criticized.39 Likewise black beauty entrepreneurs were proud of their racial identities, fostered black women’s economic and political advancement in their public comments, gave generously to African American charitable and political causes, and, at times, actively participated in social movements.40 Through consideration of the race, class, and gender politics of hair straightening, historians have challenged the view that hair straightening was merely imitative of whites. Historical research uncovered meanings of the conk as black working-class rebellion, and of women’s straightened hair as a style that for many black women signified good grooming and therefore expressed self-respect.41

Historians have drawn on business archives to situate black women’s beauty culture in the context of the interconnected histories of women’s entrepreneurship and the development of consumer culture in the early 20th century.42 Early in the 20th century, the public overcame its association of cosmetics with prostitution to the point that cosmetics and hair care, when they were used in ways that were perceived as middle class, came to signal respectability. The beauty business grew and, in the context of a racially segregated society, created distinct opportunities for black and white women. Histories that have focused on the emergence of beauty culture have been keenly attuned to the differences in the business trajectories and meanings of black and white women’s hair and beauty care. While some histories have considered black and white beauty businesses side by side, albeit usually in separate chapters, black beauty culture is often studied as a separate topic. Historians have focused on the ways in which beauty culture provided an accessible route to livelihoods for countless numbers of black women in a “racial enclave economy.”43 Writers have stressed the ways in which beauty shops and barber shops served economic, social, political, and psychological purposes in black communities.44 They provided economic stability for black practitioners and nurturing for black customers.45 The manufacture of beauty products, the growth of beauty shops, and the development of beauty education have advanced along different trajectories for black and white women, leading to different chronologies and differing racial patterns of ownership. While historians have tended to narrate the histories of beauty-product manufacturing and beauty shops together, beauty education was given fullest treatment in a separate study that documents the rise of black beauty schools during the era of segregation.46

Scholarship on black women’s beauty culture frequently takes readers out of the beauty shop to political rallies, college campuses, and popular entertainments where black women learned to see themselves in new ways and experimented with how they might show a new sense of self through style.47 Hair care, cosmetics, and fashion are the practices, products, and technologies through which everyday women engage with and try to meet social expectations for appearance. In the 20th century, beauty pageants were important institutions through which beauty norms were celebrated, and defined. Scholars have examined black debates regarding definitions of beauty in 20th-century black and racially integrated beauty contests.48 Histories addressed the importance of respectability to 20th-century African American women’s politics and the sometimes surprising alliances between spectacles of beauty and gendered racial politics.

Transnational perspectives are rare in histories of African American beauty culture.49 Historians note Madam C. J. Walker’s travels to the Caribbean and South America on trips to introduce her products to black women beyond the United States.50 In the 1950s and 1960s, relatively affluent black beauticians traveled to Europe and the Caribbean on excursions sponsored by their professional associations.51 Anticolonial movements in Africa inspired black activists in the 1960s, some of whom began to express their identification with the continent of Africa through fashion and hairstyles. More research into the transnational circulation of aesthetics, products, entrepreneurs, practices, and practitioners would enrich understandings of black beauty culture in the United States.

Primary Sources

The Madam C. J. Walker Papers, containing materials relating to her life and enterprises, from 1910 through 1980, are housed at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis. A biographical sketch of Walker’s life, introduction to the collection, and detailed description of its contents is available online through the Historical Society. The Madam Walker Family Archive is a private collection containing Walker photographs, correspondence, and business records. These two collections have been essential sources for historians writing on Walker and the development of African American beauty culture.

Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Branch of the Chicago Public Library contains the papers of Marjorie Stewart Joyner, Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Colleges supervisor, and founder of the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association (UBSOTA). The papers include Joyner’s correspondence, materials relating to the Mme. C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company and Beauty Schools, clipping files, and UBSOTA materials. A detailed finding aid is available at the Chicago Public Library.

The National Archives for Black Women's History of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, DC, contains records of the National Council of Negro Women and some Annie Turnbo Malone and Madam C. J. Walker Papers.

The Franklin School of Beauty was established by Nobia Franklin in Houston, Texas, in 1917. After a move to Chicago, the school returned to Houston in 1935 and continued as an extremely successful family business that educated 25,000 black beauticians by the end of the 1970s.52 The Franklin Beauty School Collection at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center of Houston Public Library provides a wealth of documentation on the Franklin School itself and the development and regulation of cosmetology as a field of education. A detailed finding aid is available at Texas Archival Resources Online.

Further Reading

Blackwelder, Julia Kirk. Styling Jim Crow: African American Beauty Training during Segregation. College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

    Bundles, A‘Leila. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. New York: Scribner Books, 2001.Find this resource:

      Craig, Maxine Leeds. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

        Gill, Tiffany. Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women's Activism in the Beauty Industry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010.Find this resource:

          Kelley, Robin D. G. “Nap Time: Historicizing the Afro.” Fashion Theory 1 (1997): 339–352.Find this resource:

            Kobena Mercer. “Black Hair/Style Politics.” In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures. Edited by Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West, 247–264. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990.Find this resource:

              McAndrew, Malia. “A Twentieth Century Triangle Trade: Selling Black Beauty at Home and Abroad, 1945–1965.” Enterprise and Society 11 (December 2010): 784–810.Find this resource:

                Mills, Quincy T. Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                  Peiss, Kathy. Hope in a Jar: The Making of America's Beauty Culture. New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998.Find this resource:

                    Rooks, Noliwe. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

                      Willett, Julie Ann. Permanent Waves: The Making of the American Beauty Shop. New York: New York University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

                        Wingfield, Adia Harvey. Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.Find this resource:


                          (1.) George Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987).

                          (2.) Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

                          (3.) Wallace-Sanders, Mammy; and Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes Mammies and Bucks (New York: Continuum, 1992).

                          (4.) Maxine Leeds Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 47.

                          (5.) Notably this was also the year in which predominantly white feminists picketed the Miss America pageant to protest its sexism and racism.

                          (6.) Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), 230–232.

                          (7.) Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” Signs 14 (Summer 1989): 912–920.

                          (8.) Erin Chapman, Prove It On Me: New Negroes, Sex, and Popular Culture in the 1920s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

                          (9.) Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 72, 109.

                          (10.) Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 110–111.

                          (11.) Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 52; and Noliwe Rooks, Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 31–35.

                          (12.) A‘Leila Bundles, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (New York: Scribner, 2001), 66–67.

                          (13.) Rooks, Hair Raising, 42.

                          (14.) Quincy T. Mills, Cutting along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 61, 119.

                          (15.) Mills, Cutting along the Color Line, 118–119.

                          (16.) Mills, Cutting along the Color Line, 109–114.

                          (17.) Jacqueline Jones, Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family, From Slavery to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1985), 112–113, 154, 199.

                          (18.) Julie Ann Willett, Permanent Waves: The Making of the American Beauty Shop (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 5.

                          (19.) Julia Kirk Blackwelder, Styling Jim Crow: African American Beauty Training during Segregation (College Station: Texas A & M Press, 2003), 27.

                          (20.) Willett, Permanent Waves, 61.

                          (21.) Bernard F. Whalen, “Beleaguered Johnson Products Co. Plans War with Cosmetology Giants,” Marketing News 13 (February 22, 1980): 7.

                          (22.) Paulette M. Caldwell, “A Hair Piece: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Gender,” Duke Law Journal (1991): 365–396; and Willett, Permanent Waves, 179–180.

                          (23.) Caldwell, 366–367.

                          (24.) Rooks, Hair Raising.

                          (25.) Gill, Beauty Shop Politics, 56–57; and Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 208–210.

                          (26.) Gill, Beauty Shop Politics, 56.

                          (27.) Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen, 78–108.

                          (28.) Willett, Permanent Waves, 24–26.

                          (29.) Willett, Permanent Waves, 99.

                          (30.) Willett, Permanent Waves, 109–114.

                          (31.) Adia Harvey Wingfield, Doing Business with Beauty: Black Women, Hair Salons, and the Racial Enclave Economy (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 44–45.

                          (32.) Wingfield, Doing Business with Beauty, 20–21.

                          (33.) Cheikh Anta Babou, “Migration as a Factor of Cultural Change Abroad and at Home: Senegalese Female Hair Braiders in the United States,” in African Migrations: Patterns and Perspectives, eds. Abdoulaye Kane and Todd H. Leedy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 230–247.

                          (34.) Kimberley Johnson, “Political Hair: Occupational Licensing and the Regulation of Race and Gender Identity,” Du Bois Review 8 (2011): 418.

                          (35.) Willett, Permanent Waves, 162, 175.

                          (36.) Craig, “Decline and Fall of the Conk; or, How to Read a Process,” Fashion Theory 1 (1997): 399–420; Robin D. G. Kelley, “Nap Time: Historicizing the Afro,” Fashion Theory 1 (1997): 339–352; Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics,” in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, eds. Russell Ferguson, Martha Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 247–264; and Peiss, Hope in a Jar; Rooks, Hair Raising.

                          (37.) Kobena Mercer, “Black Hair/Style Politics.”

                          (38.) Bundles, On Her Own Ground; Rooks, Hair Raising.

                          (39.) Craig, “Decline and Fall of the Conk; Kelley, “Nap Time; Mercer, Black Hair/Style Politics”; and Rooks, Hair Raising.

                          (40.) Bundles, On Her Own Ground.

                          (41.) Robin D. G. Kelley, “Nap Time”; and Craig, “Decline and Fall of the Conk.”

                          (42.) Peiss, Hope In a Jar; Willett, Permanent Waves.

                          (43.) Wingfield, Doing Business with Beauty, 20–21.

                          (44.) Gill, Beauty Shop Politics; Mills, Cutting along the Color Line.

                          (45.) Blain Roberts, Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

                          (46.) Blackwelder, Styling Jim Crow.

                          (47.) Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen.

                          (48.) Craig, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen; Roberts, Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women; and Karen W. Tice, Queens of Academe: Beauty Pageantry, Student Bodies, and College Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

                          (49.) An important exception is Malia McAndrew, “A Twentieth Century Triangle Trade: Selling Black Beauty at Home and Abroad, 1945–1965,” Enterprise and Society 11 (December 2010): 784–810.

                          (50.) Bundles, On Her Own Ground, 154.

                          (51.) Gill, Beauty Shop Politics, 82–95.

                          (52.) Blackwelder, Styling Jim Crow, 142, 143.