In the years since, Black women in America have consistently created decade-defining hairstyles. In the 1960s, many wore heavy, synthetic wigs that recalled Aretha Franklin’s beehive or the Supremes’ bouncy flip, both of which were born from the need to assimilate to white beauty standards in order to convey a marketable image — this was before Blackness was something to be celebrated, much less marketed. By the 1970s, in defiance of that oppressive whitewashing, many women grew heavily picked-out Afros in homage to the activist Angela Davis, who lamented years later that she would be “remembered as a hairdo.” The era’s Black Power movement encouraged women to embrace their Blackness, including their natural hair texture, but Afros soon came to be viewed as threatening by whites, and many young professionals who wore them were fired from their jobs. In the 1980s, that defiant shape was chemically softened, smoothed onto perm rods and doused in hair oil to create the Jheri curl, a juicy style that became a punchline for the stains it left behind on couches, jackets and car seats.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the weave morphed from a little-discussed but everyday aspect of Black hair into its own fully realized genre. In some ways, a hairdo like Houston’s was a throwback to the 1960s, crafted to appease all audiences, which also meant diminishing the performer’s own Blackness. Houston was often criticized by her Black fans for singing “white songs” — her music was, some said, too pop, too produced — and for maintaining an image that, with her flirty tendrils, appeared too polished, too polite. She had been crafted to be a global megastar, not a Black one. And yet while Houston was being presented as a sweet, soft, slim, dutiful wife, mother and daughter, the ideal girl next door, she was still irrefutably Black and, therefore, through her very existence, challenged America’s idea of what a Black woman could be or look like.
A woman might wear long chocolate strands with a deep side part like Aaliyah one week, then get an edgy blonde asymmetrical bob like T-Boz from TLC the next. Wearing a weave meant there was nothing to forsake, nothing to commit.
So did her perfect hair, to which other Black women responded with their own tributes and interpretations. The model Naomi Campbell and the singer Mary J. Blige also wore weaves styled by LaVar, though theirs projected a tougher image. Campbell and Blige had attitude; they could be luxe and street at the same time — they weren’t burdened by the same pressures as Houston was. And so, Black women who wanted to be seen as fierce and no-nonsense requested versions of the waist-length weave that Campbell wore on magazine covers. Others, who wanted to convey strength and soulfulness, mimicked Blige’s now-signature caramel hue.
A weave gave a woman the armor she needed to face the world. Not because it provided thicker hair, or longer hair, but because it allowed for versatility: She could go from dark, elbow-length strands to an above-the-chin crop without having to cut, much less touch, her actual hair. (Very few Black women wore their hair natural in the ’90s.) She might wear long chocolate strands with a deep side part like Aaliyah one week, then get an edgy blonde asymmetrical bob like T-Boz from TLC the next. Wearing a weave meant there was nothing to forsake, nothing to commit. Life had possibility, and weaves gave women the freedom of self-invention and reinvention. Black women were no longer tethered to what society had prescribed for them. They no longer had to adhere to the narratives that had pigeonholed them since birth. They were, as they have always been, fully expressive, experimenting with their own identities, crafting themselves piece by piece to make their own self-portrait, one dreamed up by and created for themselves alone. A weave allowed for opportunities denied them by a bigoted society: A weave was play; it was autonomy; it was self-expression. And even when life was difficult, a weave was something pleasurable — a weave, in the end, was joyful.