The right hair for Raisin

April 1, 2013

By Alison Roberts, pharm Costume Designer

I had a wonderful time designing the costumes for the Arden Theatre Company’s production of A Raisin in the Sun. I had been looking forward to not only working on it, >ampoule but seeing it ever since it was announced as part of our season. I love the play immensely. I read it for the first time in high school and was struck by how much I could relate to the characters (especially Beneatha) even though my life bore little resemblance to theirs. That is the mark of good writing and that is always the best place to start when making theatre.

Peterson Townsend as George and Jaleesa Capri as Beneatha, with her newly cropped hair. Photo by Mark Garvin

That’s not to say the show didn’t provide me with challenges; it most definitely did. I had to research a lot about the early 1950’s, what it was like to be an African American living in the South Side of Chicago back before the civil rights movement really started, and work with the director, Walter Dallas, to make sure I was bringing his vision of the play to life. Each character had a story to tell and it was my role to use clothing to tell it. A big part of one the character’s story is her hair- specifically whether to continue to straighten or “mutilate” it as another character puts it, or cut it and let it be natural. By cutting her hair, she makes a very bold statement about who she is.

Why is it so bold? Well, from the turn of the century on, women of color were expected to straighten their hair using heated combs and various hair treatments. Mme C.J. Walker and G.A. Morgan popularized this technique.

Mme CJ Walker hair preparations

Women were happy to have a way to make their hair more manageable and as this ad from 1901 suggests, more like white women.

Wonderful Hair Straightener

For women of this time, straightening the hair was a good way to feel more attractive and to be more accepted by the majority. Assimilation was the way to do it. This seemed to be the only acceptable hairstyling through1900-1960’s (when chemical hair-straighteners were introduced).  Here are some examples of hairstyles of the 1950’s when the play takes place. These women would be what the characters would consider the standard of beauty.

Around the time that the play was written, the idea that assimilation wasn’t the only way was just starting to take hold.  African Americans were starting to look to their roots figuratively and literally to get a sense of a true identity; not just one that one adopted from white culture. This went along with the civil rights movement. Here are a few examples of promoting natural hair. Interestingly, the 1960’s and 1970’s saw resurgence in wig wearing for women of all races.

Lorraine Hansberry, pictured below, was making a statement by having a character in A Raisin in the Sun cut off her straightened hair. It took a brave woman to be the first in the 1950’s to do it.   By researching not only the clothing of the time period, but the political and social movements of the time, I can fully express the intentions of the playwright and the essence of the characters.

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