What is a Conk Hairdo?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The conk hairdo is a hairstyle for African-American men which involves the use of a chemical relaxer to straighten the hair. This hairstyle was immensely popular in the 1920s through the 1960s, before fading out as a result of a rise of interest in celebrating African heritage and the look of more naturally styled black hair. Conking is still offered at some salons, and it is also possible to achieve a conk hairdo at home, although having an assistant helps.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

When hair is conked, a powerful chemical relaxer is applied to the hair to straighten out the naturally kinky curls of black hair. Historically, this relaxer was heavy on the lye, and it was probably quite uncomfortable to apply. Modern relaxers are still quite caustic and sometimes very bad for the hair, because a very strong relaxer is needed to make a conk hairdo; the hair must also be repeatedly re-conked to keep it straight.

Once the hair has been straightened, there are a number of ways to wear a conk hairdo. The hair can be styled in a pompadour, slicked back across the head, or styled in other ways. Originally, the conk hairdo was developed to make black hair look more like the straight, sleek hair of some whites, so styling options historically typically emphasized the fact that the hair was straight and smooth. The style was popularized by people like Cab Colloway, a notable black jazz performer, along with other black musicians and artists.

The conk hairdo requires a great deal of maintenance. Exposure to moisture and humidity can cause the hair to curl again, so many people choose to wear do-rags or hats with a conk hairdo, especially at home, to keep the hair straight and even. As the hair grows out, the new hair must be conked so that it will be straight, requiring frequent applications of the caustic chemical relaxers.

In the 1960s, the conk hairdo began to fade out. In addition to being time-consuming to make and maintain, the hairstyle was also seen as an anachronism in an era when American blacks were celebrating their culture, heritage, and natural beauty. Styles like the Afro hairdo, which emphasizes the distinctive properties of black hair, became popular, and conked hair became increasingly more unusual.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Pippinwhite -- I remember that, too. A girl sat in front of me in history who had the wet look going. She had a ton of product in her hair, always, and one day, actually dripped on my test. There were little oily drops on my paper.

But then, there was "mall hair" and when you went into the girls bathroom after a couple of them had been fixing their hair, the hairspray fumes would knock you down.


I'd love to know the origin of "conk" as it refers to that kind of hairstyle.

I think the 80s "wet look" had to have been a spinoff of the conk hairdo. The curl was still there, but the hair looked wet and sleek all the time. I know that's when the "do rag" started. Girls first, and then guys wore them to keep their curls moist. I remember both sexes coming to school wearing shower caps to keep their hair wet, in fact. The administration was not pleased, and shortly, there was an exodus to the bathroom to get rid of the caps, pick out the hair and get ready for the day. You always knew when people with wet look hair had been in the bathroom because there was always an oily residue in the sinks and the smell of coconut relaxer in the air. The relaxer and the hair dressing were mostly oil-based.

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