The Story Behind Billie Holiday’s Iconic Gardenia Hair

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Today, Hulu unveils The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a new biopic about Billie Holiday directed by Lee Daniels and adapted from Johann Hari’s 2015 book Chasing the Scream about the racist war on drugs. While, first and foremost, the film sheds light on Lady Day as a once-in-a-lifetime talent and a pivotal Civil Rights figure—many scholars consider her iconic song “Strange Fruit” a protest song of the movement—it also crystalizes her role as an enduring icon of style. In helping singer and actress Andra Day transform for her Golden Globe-nominated turn as Holiday, costume designer Paolo Nieddu collaborated with Miuccia Prada on nine different vintage-inspired Prada designs for the film. Above satiny evening gowns and immaculately tailored suiting, Day sported an array of Holiday’s most-worn hairstyles including, of course, her famous gardenia-adorned updos.

Holiday’s pièce de résistance floral hair look was, and always will be, an emblem of her elegance and power. “Black women at that time in society were often not considered ‘feminine’ or beautiful in the ways that white women were by mainstream America and the media,” explains author, editor, and Black hair historian Ayana Byrd. “The fact that such a famous Black woman adopted a flower—which is soft, delicate and beautiful—and made it a part of her signature look, was a reclaiming of this idea that Black women are also beautiful in this way.” The look had a significant, long-lasting impact on stage performers, particularly within the jazz world, through the decades. In fact, gardenias worn in one’s hair is a shorthand way to pay tribute to Billie Holiday. “Even when women wear it just because they like the look—not in intentional emulation of her—it is impossible to do it without giving a nod to the singer, as the look immediately reminds us of her,” explains Byrd. “What is powerful about this is that a Black woman performing at the time—and in the industry—that she did was able to add an enduring contribution to the lexicon of what is considered beautiful.”

The irony of Holiday’s trailblazing beauty signature is that it evolved from a happy accident. According to Byrd, the story goes something like this: While backstage in a dressing room doing her hair before a performance, Billie was using a hot comb that was too hot and burned off a section of her hair near her left ear. She panicked (“Because who wouldn’t?” says Byrd), while another female jazz singer who was sharing the dressing room ran to the coat check, which was selling gardenias; she bought one so Holiday could cover it up. “She loved how it looked and began wearing the flower, sometimes more than one, after that when she performed,” Byrd says. She points that this is one of two great looks in Black hair musical history that started as a way to fix a terrible mistake. Back in the ’80s, Pepa of Salt-N-Pepa accidentally burned off a chunk of her hair on one side of her head with a chemical straightening relaxer. “Her hair was lopsided and instead of cutting the undamaged side so it was even, she went onstage with the uneven look,” says Byrd. “It was the birth of the asymmetric styles that were so popular for Black women in the ’80s.”

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