Cornrows or braids, also called canerows in the Caribbean, are an ancient traditional African style of hair grooming, in which the hair is braided very close to the scalp, using an underhand, upward motion to produce a continuous, raised row. Cornrows are often formed in simple, straight lines, as the name implies, but they can also be formed in complicated geometric or curvilinear designs.
Depending on the region of the world, cornrows are worn by men or women, or both, and are sometimes adorned with beads or cowry shells. The duration of weaving cornrow braids may take up to about 5 hours, depending on its quantity and width. Often favored for their easy maintenance, rows can be left in for weeks at a time if maintained through careful washing of the hair and regular oiling of the scalp. Braids pulled too tight or worn for considerable lengths of time can cause a type of hair loss known as traction alopecia.
Cornrows are a traditional way of styling hair in various global areas. Depictions of women with cornrows have been found in Stone Age paintings in the Tassili Plateau of the Sahara, and have been dated as far back as 3000 B.C. The traditional hairstyle of Roman Vestal Virgins incorporated cornrows. The tradition of female hairstyling in cornrows has remained popular throughout Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa and West Africa. Historically, male styling with cornrows can be traced as far back as the early nineteenth century to Ethiopia, where warriors and kings such as Tewodros II and Yohannes IV were depicted wearing cornrows.
Cornrow hairstyles in Africa also cover a wide social terrain: religion, kinship, status, age, ethnicity, and other attributes of identity can all be expressed in hairstyle. Just as important is the act of braiding, which transmits cultural values between generations, expresses bonds between friends, and establishes the role of professional practitioner.
Over the years, cornrows, along with dreadlocks, have been the subject of several disputes in American workplaces, as well as universities. Some employers and educational institutions have deemed them unsuitable, and banned them – sometimes even terminating employees who have worn them. Employees and civil rights groups have countered that such attitudes evidence cultural bias, and some disputes have resulted in litigation.
In 2011, the High Court of the United Kingdom, in a decision reported as a test case, ruled against a school's decision to refuse entry to a student with cornrows. The school claimed this was part of its policy mandating "short back and sides" haircuts, and disallowing styles that might be worn as indicators of gang membership. However, the court ruled that the student was expressing a tradition and that such policies, while possibly justifiable in certain cases (e.g. skinhead gangs), had to accommodate reasonable ethnic and cultural practices.
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- Black & Beautiful Fashion (June 22, 2016). "Do Cornrows Come from Africa?". Retrieved 2016-08-12.
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- Sherrow, Victoria (2006). Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 97.
- Harris, Sherry. "Cornrows: History, Controversy & Freedom of Expression". Sherry's Life. Retrieved 28 August 2016.
- Alison Dundes Renteln. The Cultural Defense. p. 143. Retrieved 10 August 2011.
- "School braids ban 'not justified'". The Independent. 2011-06-17. Retrieved 2011-06-17.