Lupita Nyong’o’s Met Gala hairstyle is an ode to the beauty of African hair

Lupita Nyong’o is always trusted to deliver the goods. Whether she’s on stage, film or on a red carpet, she will make sure that she leaves you fully satisfied with what she is giving you. And that’s what she does – give us her best.

When she walked on the red carpet at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Benefit Gala or as it is now known, the Met Gala on Monday, she reminded us again why she’s regarded as one of the most stylish women alive.

She interpreted the theme – America: A Lexicon of Fashion – by working with Donatella Versace on an Atelier Versace gown festooned with sparkling gems and denim panels. It was, as we have come to expect from Nyong’o, elegance personified.

But the dress wasn’t what made the internet collectively drop their jaws. It was the hair. The gorgeous cloud of hair that had us all transfixed. The voluminous afro was piled up high, with cloud-like swirls that added a dreamlike element to the hair. Its gravity-defying volume and swirled pieces of hair on her forehead beautifully framed her face.

And she knew she looked good. Time stood still as I watched her pose, tilt her head back and do the famous over the shoulder look, before laughing and walking up the famous steps of the Met.

The hair, like the dress, was a homage to American style. Inspired by the work of Brooklyn-born conceptual artist Lorna Simpson, which pays homage to, and re-imagines the context of black women’s hair in culture. As much as I loved the dress (one of the best dressed alongside Iman), it was the hair that gave us a moment so iconic, it will be rather difficult to forget about it.

Her frequent collaborator, hair stylist Vernon François, told Vogue this about Nyong’o’s hair: “Its transparent folds designed to echo the delicacy of tulle. Simpson’s take on texture is powerful, and I wanted to imitate the effortless wave and movement that she conveys in her work.”

“Doing this technique with afro hair texture has always been an ambition of mine, and seeing it a reality here tonight is something else.”

Much of Simpson’s career has been dedicated to documenting the complexity of black womanhood, and using black women’s hair has been the main subject of her work. Simpson’s work has been a source of great inspiration for many hairstylists.

Looking back at all of her red carpet appearances, getting the right hair has always been important for Nyong’o. Her first red carpet was at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, where she went against the grain, choosing to rock her short, natural hair. It was the beginning of a relationship of high fashion and her short, African hair that wasn’t prevalent in an industry that insisted that black women have long, straight weaves.

During that award season run, she managed to make the most of her short hair, cleverly working with hairstylists to add a bit of volume, texture and gloss when she needed a dramatic look. Her 2014 Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards looks, saw her play around with the German cut, or as we call it in South Africa, is-Chicco (named after music producer Chicco Twala).

Her first Met Gala in 2014 also saw her play round with the style, choosing this time to have a side part, and finished off with a Swiss rolled afro extension. It was her attendance at the 2016 gala that finally made many believe that Nyong’o was not playing around – she wanted us to see how beautiful black hair, especially 4C afro hair, is.

Working with Francois again, she wore her hair natural, choosing to add afro extensions to create a structural updo, that was a towering, conical hairstyle that paid homage to the theme (Manus x Machina) and also paid tribute to her African heritage.

This was hair that was, and still is worn by women across the continent. When Vogue compared the hairstyle to Audrey Hepburn’s, Nyong’o took to Instagram and posted the inspiration, which Francois backed up.

“We aimed to showcase the classic, towering structures which have existed throughout traditional African culture. Also, we wanted to demonstrate the versatility of textured hair and this was a great way to do that,” he wrote.

So seeing this great cloud of 4C hair, proudly displayed in one of the wealthiest enclaves of traditionally Eurocentric beauty, was a moment of triumph. It reminded me of Bridgerton’s Queen Charlotte, the character portrayed by Golda Rueshavel, whose hair was an extension of her character. With her hair she honoured her African heritage, a reminder to everyone that she was a queen of African descent. Her hair was always the biggest and highest in the room, a conversation starter. Similar to what Nyong’o’s hair over the past decade of her fame has been – part of her incredible journey of A-list stardom.

Even as black women return to relaxers and straightening their 4C hair because of how time-consuming it is to maintain, Nyong’o’s swirly cloud afro was a reminder of how beautiful African hair is. I won’t be surprised when people go back to this hairstyle when they think of the best beauty looks of the year. I can’t help but think how furious Marie Antoinette would have been to see this hairstyle. I also cannot wait to see how this hairstyle inspires Simpson’s next work of art.

This article was first published in Saturday Insider, Sep 18, 2021

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