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Cornrows are a style of wearing the hair in very tight braids, which often have beads interwoven through them. The style originated in North Africa, and was noted among Europeans when the slave trade in that area began. Slaves in the US retained the tradition of wearing cornrows, which were fairly easy to care for once the hair was braided.
In the 1920s through 1950s, African American women often preferred straightening their hair to wearing it in cornrows. However, actress Cicely Tyson, began wearing them for the television show, “East Side/West Side” in 1963. African Americans embraced style as a sign of black pride, and they once again became popular. They were also a sign of affinity with one’s origins in Africa, since they were considered a traditional hairstyle.
This popularity led to a rise in the number of salons that could perform the complex braiding process. In 1979, white women also became entranced by the style of cornrows after the film 10 featured Bo Derek wearing her hair this way. Cornrows became associated with being a perfect “10” or an ideal beauty at that time.
Ironically, at about the time 10 was released, there was a decline in the popularity of the style among African Americans. However, it returned again in 1990s, along with the increased popularity of hip-hop and rap. The style of cornrows has never been completely “out” and many women, and men, find wearing them quite convenient.
The braiding process results in a hairstyle that often lasts without the need for repairs for about a month. Care does need to be taken when washing the hair. The style can range from simple to complex; some patterns of cornrows incorporate elaborate designs and may require two days at a salon to achieve.
Since cornrows pull the hair so tightly into the braids, the style has been associated with a few problems. Notably, people with dry skin may experience dandruff. Cornrows can also be associated with hair loss, called traction alopecia, among some people. Using a special type of oil or gels made for this style can help keep the skin moisturized.
In certain parts of Africa, cornrows remain a traditional style of wearing the hair and may be worn by either women or men, although they are considered to be exclusively for women in some places. This is the case in Nigeria, where men who wear cornrows are considered effeminate. Throughout the western world, however, they are more unisex.