Uncovering Trends: Box Braids

By: Jordyn Larkins


I’ll never forget watching Poetic Justice for the first time when I was 10-years-old. As a child, I was in awe of the main character’s hairstyle. All of you Poetic Justice fans know I’m referring to Justice herself, played by Janet Jackson. In the film, she wore long, beautiful, versatile, yet simple box braids. They were so distinct. Imagine the luxury of getting to wear your hair any way you wanted: high bun, half up, half down, pulled back in a ponytail, or simple free-flowing. The flexibility of the box braids style, combined with the ability to keep your natural hair protected in the braids, amazed me. After the movie was released in the early 90s (Fun Fact: Poetic Justice celebrated its 25th anniversary this July), the box braids would go on to adopt a new name: “Poetic Justice braids.” In reality, the hairstyle has been celebrated and adorned by black women for decades.

Antonette Jackson (aka AJ) is a master stylist, educator, and healthy hair coach in New York City. She says trying to identify the exact time and place box braids were birthed will likely result in a myriad of different theories. That being said, it’s a nearly impossible feat.

“It’s so rich and significant to our history as black women, that to look back & pinpoint a place it originated is kind of like asking us to look in the mirror and ask: Who are we?” explains Jackson. “Who are we as black women and where did we come from in the world?”

While tracking when they were created is a challenge, box braids can be traced back to regions of Africa and Asia. In some cultures, the hairstyle helped identify status within a society for women. Box braids also symbolized health and fertility. Fast forward to 2018 and box braids have become a more convenient, go-to protective hairstyle.

According to Jackson, box braids are a historically rich ongoing trend that, in recent generations, has lost some of its cultural richness. She tells me that convenience seems to outweigh the celebration of culture. However, she says the very act of braiding still connects us to our ancestors.

“Now, when a client comes in with her six to ten packs of hair…that time we sit together for several hours, that act of exchanging energy and adorning her hair can go all the way back to what people consider some of the earliest civilizations,” says Jackson.

Box braids also resonate with children. Master Stylist Tameka Hill of Rochester, New York, says that’s because they make life easier for busy families.

“A lot of kids get them [box braids] because their parents are very busy, so it’s another get-up-and-go for the kids,” says Hill. “They [parents] don’t have to worry about getting their kids ready or getting up too early because the kids’ buses are coming. Their hair is already done. So that’s another convenient thing about the box braids with kids.”

Today, box braids seem to be more about fashion and ease rather than cultural significance. I’ve noticed that this has become more evident through the many ways the hairstyle continues to evolve over time, but the style, at its core, remains the same.

There are three options available for this particular trend when one sits in their stylist’s chair: traditional box braids (i.e. “Poetic Justice Braids”), crochet box braids, and box braids lace front wigs. The  traditional style can take anywhere from four to 10+ hours to create. As you might imagine, with the rise of what I call “an instant gratification” society, the installation process for the newer box braid trends has seen a rapid change. Crocheting and lace front wigs take half the time as the traditional braids I first fell in love with as a child.

I have been getting my hair braided for as long as I can remember and out of the three installation techniques, crochet is my favorite. My natural hair is adequately protected in the cornrows, it’s relatively easy to maintain and the hair isn’t heavy – so there’s no strain to the neck. However, I should point out that all three installation methods have their drawbacks. The traditional braiding technique gives you the freedom to wear your hair any way you want while keeping your natural hair protected, but the installation process could literally take most of the day. Crocheting cuts the installation process down, but you don’t have as much flexibility styling your hair (ponytails, half up/half down, etc.) without people knowing that your natural hair is actually cornrowed. Lastly, lace front wigs take minutes to install, but it’s not as secure. When installing, some clients choose to have the wig glued down to their scalp which can ultimately weaken the client’s edges over time. However, some people (like me) opt-out of the glue and just wear the wig as is.

It seems that box braids have always been an integral part of our culture as black women. Whether it’s small braids (micros) large box braids, crochet or wigs, as long as they continue to evolve to fit in with needs of today’s women, they will always have a unique place in our society.

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