An ancient hairstyle refuses to fall out of fashion

As old as the Bible, dreadlocks are still struggling in today’s society to break free from the negative myths that surround them.

“Dreadlocks have existed throughout history and have always expressed polar opposites,” says Karen Wallington, hairstylist for the last nine years and owner of Toronto studio Knot Just Dreads.

They were referred to as snakes in the Bible, according to her research. Later Kenyan warriors were growing dreadlocks to scare British colonists. The hairstyle’s rebellion association continued in Jamaica where the Rastafarian movement was beginning with its fight against slavery.

However, at the opposite end of the spectrum dreads were being used as a symbol of peace and spirituality with the Indian holy men, Wallington explains. “The hair was unkempt because that was the natural way things were and it wasn’t about beauty.”

“Some of it is for practical purposes, some of it is for spiritual reasons, and some of it is for fashion reasons,” Wallington says. The barrage of reasons people have for knotting their locks still applies in today’s society.

Wallington stumbled into the art form of dreadlocks unintentionally, she says. As an apprentice working towards her cosmetology degree she found herself helping with the maintenance on a stylist’s dreadlocks and immediately became captivated with the concept.

“This was so different from anything we’d been taught in school. It was organized chaos. It was manipulating Caucasian hair, or any hair texture for that matter, in a way that’s not entirely natural.”

Another woman to unexpectedly stumble into the business of dreadlocks is Adrianna Hepper, founder of the Canadian company Knotty Boy, the only one of its kind in the world that has created and still strictly maintains an all-natural line of dread products.

Back in 1996 Hepper was playing mad scientist in her kitchen and “cooking up all kinds of different waxes and oils and making body products for fun at home just to give as gifts for Christmas.” She says that at the time she had a friend whose salon dreads had turned out terribly wrong and he desperately needed her help. She quickly developed a homemade product for him.

“He had the best dreads that anyone had really seen on a white guy within about three months,” says Hepper on the results of her creation.

One thing led to another and two years later, being driven by financial obligations, Hepper turned her concoctions into profit by slowly creating Knotty Boy.

“I made up a bunch of this stuff, put up a really crappy little website on the Internet, and within a weeks time I had people sending me cash in envelopes from all around the world.”

Very much like Wallington, Hepper admits that in the beginning she had no previous interest in dreadlocks whatsoever. “The way that people, up until that time, typically achieved dreadlocks through the neglect method really didn’t appeal to me.”

Although she didn’t realize it at the time, Hepper’s line of products would begin to radically change the concept of dreadlocks for many people. People now had access to product that would allow them to wash their hair regularly and control the look of their dreads, something unheard of before. With each product sold, the timeless stereotype that dreadlocks were created from laziness and kept extremely dirty was slowly eroded.

Knotty Boy has expanded and now has a salon located in Vancouver. Hepper says that there is a definite difference between people who choose to do dreadlocks themselves and those coming through the shop to get their locks done.

Hepper explains that some radicals who follow the neglect method feel that nothing should touch their head. “It’s insulting to them that somebody would use a product to accelerate this natural process.”

Those who come through the shop typically are more interested in the unique style that is dreads, according to Hepper. Often these people can have unruly hard-to-manage hair, or have simply faced troubles finding a look that they felt suited them. They turn to dreads as an alternative hairstyle.

“They want us to do more than just dreadlocks, so we’ll do the dreadlocks and then we’ll do extenders to make short dreads really long, or throw colour in there or do something really loud and crazy,” says Hepper, referring to those clients who want something intensely expressive.

Music is a persistent influence, with many musicians getting knotted. Hepper notes that Bob Marley has had a huge presence, “Anybody that identifies with the sentiments he expresses in his songs will choose to wear dreadlocks to maintain that spirit and to show they empathize.”

Lastly Hepper says that customers ordering product off the website tend to fall somewhere in the middle between radicals following the neglect method and the colourful personalities visiting the shop. She categorizes them as those that want the concept of natural dreads yet want to be able to wash and take care of them through product use and maintenance. “They care that they look tidy and they’re well groomed and not smelly.”

The age’s dreads are attracting both in the shop and through the web ranges from three to 60 years old, Hepper says. The young ones are typically African-American children whose mothers are choosing dreads to control knotty, hard-to-comb hair. She notes that roughly 70 per cent of website customers fall between 17 and 22, while the in-store customers are a slightly more mature crowd of professionals in their 20s and 30s.

Wallington has found that Knot Just Dreads is attracting customers between 14 and 40. She also notes that many of her customers are of mixed ethnicities.

“I find that they are very almost lost,” Wallington says. “Their hair is too curly for a Caucasian salon and it’s too straight for an afro salon so they don’t know what to do with their hair, which is perfect for locks.”

Hepper says feelingly that something much greater than the success of Knotty Boy has been the influence she has made on the lives of so many kids whose hair issues had turned into social nightmares for them. Hepper has received feedback from children stating that changing their hair has literally changed their lives.

“I definitely didn’t have an easy time in school myself so I totally get how much of a difference it can make when you find that one thing that changes things for you on the outside; it can lead to changes on the inside,” says Hepper, identifying with these young ones.

In regards to the future of dreadlocks, Hepper has seen an annual solid increase in business since Knotty Boy began 10 years ago. Many had warned her when she began that dreads were a fad inspired by bands such as Rage Against the Machine, Korn, and singer Lauryn Hill in the mid to late 90s, and that the popularity would soon dwindle. Hepper has yet to see this warning materialize.

“It seems that now it’s become more than ever a permanent fixture in youth culture.”

Hepper and her crew at Knotty Boy encourage people to try dreadlocks. Clearly you can never be too old or too young, and because everyone has such intensely personal reasons for their locks you don’t have to fit into a certain bracket to justify getting them.

“It’s something that transcends scene, religion, culture, subculture, and age,” Hepper says. “People are always really thrilled with how much it changes them.”

Wallington believes people go through stages that require them to induce change.

“People get dreads when they go through drastic changes in their life, and they also remove them during drastic changes.”