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Dazed Summer 2014Photography by Inez & Vinoodh, Styling by Karen Clarkson

How baby curls became a vehicle for creative expression

We spoke to three hairstylists known for their unique take on baby hair styling

Some of my earliest memories involve getting my hair done. Sat on the floor beside the couch, perched on my parent’s bed, or at the kitchen table; I’d fish matching barrettes out of a plastic bin, while my mother parted and brushed my hair into smaller sections, slicking it down with gel or lotion that had such a distinct smell that I’m instantly reminded of my childhood whenever I smell it today. For the finishing touch, besides a brightly coloured bow at the end of each braided ponytail, my mother would run a brush and a bit of grease over my baby hair, looping it into curls as she laid them; it was a simple gesture but it pulled the entire look together. 

In black and Latinx households this experience is practically universal. Baby hairs, the shorter, finer hairs at your hairline, have existed for as long as hair has grown out of heads. And black and Latinx communities have been styling them to the side, slicking them down or gelling them into tight curls for generations.

One of the first people to experiment with their baby hair was legendary 20s-era performer Josephine Baker, who was known for her swooping slicked down sideburns and tight pin curls. As black and Latinx hairstyles evolved so did the styling of baby hair. The Great Depression came and went, and the flamboyance of the flapper era gave way to a much more sober style. Roller set updos sported by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were adorned with softly laid edges, while during the war, hair was swept back for safety purposes as women got jobs at factories.

Cut to the 50s and early 60s and beehives were all the rage, with edges gelled down on the forehead. Then as the Black Power movement gathered momentum, women began to embrace their natural hair, which meant sculpted hairlines became statements in their own right. With the 70s came a series of iconic looks courtesy of Bernadette Stanis in her role as Thelma in the popular sitcom “Good Times,” and Latoya Jackson. Stanis’ baby hairs were soft and wisped along her hairline with minimal styling while Jackson’s signature style was parted through the centre and slicked down on either side of her forehead, a style she sported since childhood. 

Things got more experimental in the 80s with the likes of Patti Labelle’s spiked do’s after which the 90s witnessed an explosion of styles, from ultra-detailed loops meant to complement ornate updos (think Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle as Nisi and Mickey in B*A*P*S*) to gently brushed to the side swoops courtesy of TLC’s Chilli or Jada Pinkett-Smith’s in Low Down Dirty Shame. Around the same time, Latinx communities like Cholas, a Mexican subculture that originated in Southern California, were paring their trademark thin brows and overlined lips with slicked-back hair and heavily styled baby hair. 

Fast forward to this decade and to quote a popular meme: “Girls be putting baby hair on every hairstyle like it’s parsley”. Think Rico Nasty, think FKA Twigs, think Yara Shahidi. Think Beyonce singing “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros,” in “Formation”. In 2019, loops and swoops adorn natural curls, ponytails, braids, locs and everything in between. They are embellished with jewels and gems and worn everywhere from the catwalk to the street. They are moulded with brushes or toothbrushes, edges of combs, and styled using gel, water or edge control. Beauty gurus and novices on YouTube fashion baby hairs with scissors on lace wigs to protect their real hair from extended damage.

The rise of social media platforms has created a space where beauty inspiration is readily available and easily shared and with it boundless options for creativity and self-expression but these images are also pinned on moodboards and in spaces where black and Latinx women are left out of the room. For AW15, Givenchy sent a flock of white models down the runway with exaggerated baby hairs across their foreheads and described them as “Victorian Chola girls” amid calls of cultural appropriation, while the previous season saw DKNY send models down the runway in French braids with slicked-down baby hair and chokers, to equal criticism. In 2014, Katy Perry drew condemnation when she paired slicked down hairs with cornrows in her “How We Do” video, while Kim Kardashian has been called out numerous times for wearing the style.  

Like with dreadlocks and cornrows, one of the problems with this co-option of traditionally POC hairstyles lies in who is punished and who is rewarded for the looks. As Jenn Li wrote in a viral tweet, when black women wear gelled-down baby hairs it is seen as “ghetto,” while white models sporting the same look are called “high-fashion.” “Black girls are punished and mocked for their originality, while others profit from and co-opt their creations,” she writes. 

In light of these episodes of cultural appropriation, it is now more important than ever to shift the focus back to black and Latinx women who are rocking their baby curls. Here we spoke to three women redefining the style with their creative vision.

Illeisha Lussiano

Illeisha Lussiano is a New York-based hair artiste and owner of the lower east side salon, The Way. She had Locs when she snapped a shot of her baby hairs that went viral on Tumblr. 

“The image was actually of my baby hairs while I was waiting for the train, and then boom Tumblr ate it up. My favourite part about it all is that I actually had Locs at the time, so it felt great to contribute something to help break some of the misconceptions of what Locs are capable of.

I associate people from my culture and communities as inspiration for my work. The women using what’s within their means and their imagination to adorn themselves through their hair – they are celebrities to me.

As a kid ‘baby hairs’ never felt like something that was heavily discussed or dissected, it's always been about preference and level of taste. It was more like my mom brushed and styled any and every hair on my head, eyebrows included. After that she’d just soften it up a bit, I’ve always viewed baby hairs as ‘soft.’

What I recommend [for laying your baby hairs] more than anything else is a mirror, take a few minutes and look at yourself. See what you’ve got to work with, and how it’ll enhance your features and bone structure. Product doesn’t make the Baby Hairs, you do.”

Shanice Ashley Hills

Shanice Ashley Hills is the co-founder of Baby Tress, a brush specially designed for edge styling. It was birthed out of necessity but also appreciation, she says, “Baby Tress is necessary because it tells Black Women that they deserve beautiful products that were designed specifically for them and their needs.”

“My mommy tried her best to do my hair when I was a kid. She was a young mom and I’m her firstborn so it was difficult at first, but once she got the hang of braiding my curly hair she would complete my look by adding her own stylish flair to laying my edges. When I was 15, I started to get perms and my edges suffered the brunt of the chemical process. I went natural in 2015 and brought my edges back to life when they finally grew back.

I think it’s important to say that I lay my baby hairs because I want to, not because I have to or because I feel like I need to. I like taking the extra time to slick, swoop, and define my hairline. It’s something that’s a part of my beauty ritual, like putting on mascara or doing a face mask. I enjoy being creative with laying my baby hair, and that’s that on that!

Black women are cultural trendsetters, so it’s no surprise to me that baby hairs are now ‘trendy’ and are popping up outside of the realm of black hair. I think it’s a little bit of both appropriation and appreciation, and it really varies from person to person, brand to brand, model to model. I’m happy that what I consider to be beautiful is making its way into the mainstream, but it becomes appropriation when Black Women are left out of the room.”

Shelby Swain

Celebrity hairstylist Shelby Swain’s Instagram name, The Beyonce of Baby Hairs, started as an inside joke between friends but quickly took off and now perfectly describes her signature technique which often incorporates kiss curls and embellishments, inspired in part by the hairstyles from the movie B*A*P*S*. 

“Baby hair has had a huge impact on me and the culture. Growing up seeing little girls running around with barrettes and baby hair was always so fascinating to me. There was something that was so cute and fun about adding just a little curl swoop to your hairstyle! It’s so much swag with baby hair you can literally take your ponytail to the next level– it’s that extra detail that every hairstyle needs. It’s the icing on the cake. To me it’s like having a full face of makeup with no eyebrows, that’s how hair without laid baby curls is to me. I could have this extravagant hairstyle but what about the front? It doesn’t have to be exaggerated baby hairs, just one little curl can take your hairstyle to the next level.

My kit includes two classic must-haves: The green Eco Style and Instant Control Edge Control! All baby hair is possible with those.”