As a young black girl who grew up in the historical district of downtown Los Angeles, the “baby hair aesthetic” is not new to me. Baby hairs are the short, wispy, and occasionally unruly hairs that sprout from the very beginning of your scalp. The style itself involves the use of gel to slick these hairs down onto one’s forehead, usually in a circular or wave-like manner, to contour one’s face. This particular style originated in both Latin American and African-American groups, who make up a significant part of the downtown population. Although I never quite killed the look myself, several girls in my neighborhood did.
Settling into 2015, I began to notice the sudden re-emergence of styled baby hair, a look that was originally and quite often deemed “ghetto” or, as some have sopolitely euphemized, “urban.” It’s occurring not in communities like the one I grew up in, but instead, in high fashion, on runways, and on magazine covers.
Designers like Hubert de Givenchy, Donna Karan, and Caitlin Price tend to cater to audiences who can afford the products they make that is, mostly wealthy white people. They are reproducing hair styles and regurgitating them back to audiences who previously scorned or mocked the original style. When they place those looks on a runway, a magazine cover, or even a white body, they attempt to be fashion-forward, intelligent, and original.
For the baby hair look, the fall/winter collections of Caitlin Price and Givenchy and the spring/summer collections of Donna Karan's DKNY debuted in 2015 with an exaggerated version of this “chola” hairstyle.
Givenchy's look as a whole was titled, “Victorian Chola”—using a term that has previously been and is still used in a negative context toward a marginalized group of people. What is even more frustrating is that Givenchy is such a highly respected and sought-after name in the fashion world, and he sets the tone for other designers and magazines that later followed his trends. He has only helped perpetuate the lack of understanding of what constitutes appropriation, even though cultural appropriation in the fashion industry is older than most of these designers.
In DKNY’s debut, hair stylist Eugene Souleiman, of Wella Professionals, posted to the Wella website saying he “wanted to create a look that reflected the different New York mix of urban cultures, celebrated racial diversity, and had a slightly ‘old school’ feel to it.”
This sentiment is not exactly threatening on the surface, but it requires a more detailed reading. There is a difference between appreciation and appropriation, and designers, who are often white, walk a fine line when choosing to ‘adapt’ certain styles.
The word “urban” is often tossed around and used interchangeably with euphemisms that allude to being “ghetto” or black. And despite having a considerably diverse lineup of models, especially for the fashion world, most of the models sporting the look were Caucasian, which completely negates the idea of celebrating diversity.
Phillip Picardi of Refinery 29 neatly argues that “the ‘interpretation’ or ‘inspiration,’ however good the intention, will be lost, and many women will continue to feel neglected or robbed of their cultural identities.”
This problem doesn’t solely stem from designers and stylists, but arises from how popular media responds to these “designs.”
Lucky Magazine’s Instagram account later posted a photo of the Wella-created hairstyle with the caption, “Slicked-down tendrils and a zig zag part add instant edge. Wild!”
This caused a bit of black lash from Twitter users, most cleverly put by @blackgirlnerds, a self-described online community that helps to promote awareness, in a nerdy and social context to people of color. The account retweeted the photo with the caption, “The Appropriation of Baby Hair: Lucky Magazine Coins The Term ‘Slicked-down Tendrils'.”
Critics have often used the term “innovating” to describe pre-established fashion trends created by subcultures—specifically African-Americans—as soon as those styles are placed on 5-foot-8, 115-pound, young white females. Similarly, Kendall Jenner’s cornrows were immediately dubbed “epic” and “new” by the popular fashion magazine Marie Claire after a personal post on her Instagram account. The irony is that this hairstyle predated its appearance on Jenner’s head by, frankly, hundreds of years.
Dazed Magazine’s Instagram account published a photo of three young white girls sporting the look from the DKNY show, one of whom even sported what most black people know as a do-rag, and what Chanel once attempted to rename an “Urban Tie Cap.” (A do-rag is a piece of cloth used to maintain the upkeep of one’s hair.) This is just another example of a “hair fashion” that has been scouted from racial minorities’ heads and placed onto runways that cater to a localized audience.
Crafting one’s baby hairs purposefully along one’s face is hardly criminal. Baby hairs are one thing; blackface is another. Having baby hairs is not limited to one ethnic group. The true issue is that the same stylistic choice that originated in black and Latino groups, causing backlash and demonization for those women, has been brought onto the runway and received high praise. The sensitivity to this act can be easily attributed to, and is deeply rooted in, white America’s disgraceful past of appropriating Latino and African-American cultures, of glamorizing and glorifying what once was “ghetto.”