by Anja Tyson

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In celebration of Black History Month, through the month of February All the Pretty Birds will be sharing stories and inspiration of black people’s relationship to fashion around the world, in an effort to inform and unify our community.

Part1 : Tignon Law

In 1763, Spain’s acquisition of the colony of Louisiana brought the practice of coarticion – or the right of slaves to purchase their own freedom – to a population that had previously known only slavery and segregation under British colonial rule. Free black people from the Caribbean and West Indes immigrated to Louisiana of their own volition, and their freeborn children were raised in a world where their parents were able to aspire to – and even acquire some – wealth and status.

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Twenty years later, the government was concerned with the rapidly growing free black population, and so began imposing regulations on only black communities to restrict their social gatherings and their freedom to express their wealth and status. Of particular concern was black women’s dress and presentation, which the government felt was too tempting to white men, and too threatening to white women.  Free black women had taken to braiding and elaborately decorating their hair in styles that were descendant of their own families and traditions, and for a population whose hair was ritually shaved by their white masters as a method of dehumanization, the ability to adorn and care for their hair felt like freedom.

It was also extremely common for white men to have concubines, or extramarital relationships, and for those relationships to be with Creole and black women. Black women were perceived as very sexually powerful, and white women were extremely and demonstratively jealous.

To regain psychological control and to reassert white women’s place at the top of the social order, the government decreed that all black women wear their hair in a tignon, intended as a mark to publicly identify their lowly status.

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But, if there is anything to be learned from hundreds of years of oppression, it is that no one will ever be able to keep black women down.

Very quickly, the enforced tignon became a fashion statement, and black women used brightly colored fabrics, decorations and elaborate ties to make their tignons as beautiful and remarkable as possible. Operating completely within the law, black women found a way to own their individuality and beauty in the face of legislative oppression.

Tignons and wraps continue to play a part in personal expression and beauty for many women across the world, but this very real piece of history is an important part of the discussion of cultural appropriation as it pertains to black women’s hair.  For hundreds of years, black women’s appearances have been policed by society – and in this case, actual laws – in order to suppress and psychologically control their worth in the world. And as this history becomes more and more revised and forgotten, it is easy to forget these acts of cultural violence that help shape and determine future beauty standards for generations to come. Watching that interpreted or trivialized for the sake of fashion is, understandably, upsetting.

There are years of history tied to black hair in a way that no other on earth can compare to.

Black hair is beautiful. It is expressive, individual, and because of these stories, unavoidably political.

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