mini buns or bantu knots? a twisted history of cultural appropriation

The hairdo beloved by everyone from Rihanna to Mel B to Björk is stirring up controversy after appearing in Valentino’s new lookbook.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
19 January 2016, 6:30pm

We've been here before (see: Givenchy and baby hair, and actually see also: Kylie Jenner's cornrows). A fashion brand - this time Valentino - has styled its models' hair in a way that allegedly co-opts a style originated by women of color - this time small twisted buns.

Today, writer Amanda Moore-Karim published a piece on Fashionista noting that the small buns worn in Valentino's pre-fall 16 lookbook are really "bantu knots," a hairstyle that can be traced back to West Africa. "Because of the hairstyle's historical origins," she writes, "Bantu knots carry substantial meaning in black culture and are representative of black pride." She also notes that the models wearing the look are predominantly white.

Flashback to spring/summer 16 and Valentino was also under fire for cultural appropriation. The brand showed an African-inspired collection during Paris Fashion Week on models wearing cornrows - less than ten of whom were black. The shownotes billed the collection as a "journey to the beginning of time and the essential of primitive nature." But Twitter had different ideas. "Perhaps cornrows on mostly white models could've been the first red flag to anyone with eyes on the Valentino team," tweeted one user.

After a second Twitter storm, following the release of the accompanying ad campaign (shot in a Maasai village in Kenya), creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli explained their intentions to WWD: "Our emotions about African Culture, the idea of beauty achieved by the interaction of different cultures, the idea of tolerance, this is the message we wanted to deliver."

That message is an important one. But the interaction of different cultures in fashion has always been a tricky one - so much of fashion is built on (silently) referencing and recombining looks from different times, places, and cultures. So, if we can learn anything from this latest kerfuffle, let's hope it's this: If you're using a hairstyle or garment or aesthetic with specific origins, be aware of the context and be vocal about it. And, perhaps most importantly: cast models who share the cultural heritage you are mining. 


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Image via @maisonvalentino

Cultural Appropriation
bantu knots