Black hair is political, and baby hair—the shorter and finer hairs that exist on one’s hairline and are colloquially called edges—is no exception. In popular culture, styling baby hair finds its roots in finger waves donned by Black female performers of the early 1900s like Josephine Baker, who is credited with bringing the look into the spotlight. Today, intricate hair art continues to be pushed forward by Black stylists like Shelby Swain—nicknamed The Beyoncé of Baby Hair—as she (quite literally) reimagines the boundaries of hair, creating a plethora of unforgettable styles for longtime client Lizzo, including those whimsical and bejeweled edges for her 2018 appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race, a hair hat perfectly painted to resemble wood grain for her 2019 BET Awards look, and her mullet on Vanity Fair’s November cover.
Swain’s work has been crucial to shifting the narrative around Black hair, unapologetically redefining the beauty ideal with moments like Zendaya’s controversial faux locs (complete with baby hair) at the 2015 Oscars. But we’ve seen a newfound ubiquity of edges from Givenchy and Katy Perry being praised for heralding in baby hair as a so-called new beauty trend following fashion month in 2015 (just weeks after Zendaya walked the Oscars red carpet), Kylie Jenner’s swirled baby hair at Paris fashion week, and white models, including Bella Hadid walking for Jil Sander SS23 in Milan, to Alabama Barker’s blonde swoops on Instagram, a TikTok user purporting to have invented “sticky bangs” in a now deleted video, and as part of the rise of the clean-girl aesthetic. These appropriations all signal a practice of repackaging Black beauty for mainstream culture without the negative connotations that surround the same hair styling when worn by Black women.
An understanding of the politicization of Black hair and the creativity that ensues thereafter is essential to both appreciating the artistry of baby hair and grasping the gravity of non-black communities co-opting such styles. The fashion industry has historically reframed Black beauty as something new, exotic, and interesting when superimposed on whiteness. In the age of social media, the repositioning of Black beauty innovation as a trend to incite buzz has become increasingly normalized and pervasive, so I called Swain to talk about the art and politics of baby hair.
Below, we discuss how she got her nickname, why her work is so much bigger than hair, and that grunge moment on Lizzo for our November cover.
VF: I want to start with you. Tell me how you got the nickname, The Beyoncé of Baby Hair?
Shelby Swain: When I went to hair school, we learned how to do finger waves first. When I started doing finger waves back in, well, 2010, I realized this is baby hair. It’s just the whole head. That was during the time in 2000, in LA, when nobody was wearing natural hair. [Black women] were wearing weaves and extensions because natural hair was looked down upon. When I got my braids, people said, “oh, why do you have those? That’s unprofessional… You do not look the part.” Girls started finally getting braids by me, and I started getting more and more artistic with baby hair. From there, I realized I was really good at this shit. Like, “Wow, I’m doing baby hair on the Beyoncé level.”
There is such a level of creativity and artistry when you think about manipulating these fine, small strands. There’s a certain intricacy that goes into it that does wow people by the end, but you have to trust the process.
You have to trust the process. People would say “I’m not doing this,” but then when I finish its, “wow, I look really elegant.” People started coming to me to look like a masterpiece.
I love that you used the word elegant because that’s a word that has been said to be mutually exclusive with Black hair, like baby hair, for so long.
[We’re told] Black hair is not elegant, but it totally is. We have been taught that you cannot manipulate Black hair. You cannot do anything too cool to it. You cannot make any kind of art piece. It has to be straight. It has to be in a weave. You have to conform to the norm to look like, not art, but just acceptable. I don’t want to look “acceptable”. I want to be able to be the greatest that I can be in my natural hair.