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African Head Wraps: A Brief History

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Black Women laughing wearing a blue head wrap on her I phone

Head wraps have been a timeless fashion trend in the lives of African women for centuries. African head wraps are classy, come in a variety of colors, and oh so practical. 

The popularity of these beautiful warps have grown beyond the African and global black community.

Having said that, you should know that the African head wraps come with different names. The Yorubas call their well layered and artfully tied wraps Angeles. Namibian and South African women call theirs doek and the Ghanaians call theirs dukus.

While we cannot dispute the importance of head wraps in today’s world, these wraps did not just pop out from the blues. There is a story about their existence which reveals how they evolved and in this article, we would be looking at a brief history of African head wraps. 

How It All Began

In Africa, head wraps have a practical and fashionable purpose. Wraps can be use to protect one’s head from the harsh sun and can be used as hair protective styling. But head wraps can also represent ethnicity, wealth, mourning, and marital status depending on the type of head wrap is worn and how it  is worn.  Varies tribes have different head wraps they are known for, from coast to coast. 

Different colors and patterns on African head wraps tell different stories about the occasion and the woman wearing them. They also have spiritual significance. 

african head wraps, head wraps, african wrapsAfrican head wraps have persisted over thousands of years, even during colonization when European powers attempted to change the culture of Africa and African beauty standard. 

Head wraps in the US, however, emerged as a symbol of slavery. They were used as a way of protecting the scalp from the sun on long, hot days in Southern fields.

Head coverings also served another purpose during slavery. They were forced on black women as a way of marking a slave woman. They became symbols of inferiority, worn by field slaves and house slaves alike. Even in post slavery, these images continued to spread, in the example of Aunt Jemima.

However, these head wraps were also used as a way of passing code from one slave to another, depending on how they’re tied. 

Another example of resistance took place in the Afro-creole culture. 

In 1785, Spanish colonial governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro declared that Afro-Creole women must wear tignons, a turban-like heard-wrap in order to lesson their attractiveness to French and Spanish men.

The way Afro-Creole women responded was a classic example of being given a lemon and turning it into a lemonade, like black women tend to do. They protested by decorating their tignons with jewels, ribbons, and feathers. The Tignon then became a defiant fashion statement for the years since for free women of color. 

What stared out as one of the symbols of slavery turned into a communal identity when black women in the Americas started wearing head wraps with pride.

However, after slavery and during the time of integration, wearing head wraps in public fell out of fashion as upwardly mobile black women found it necessary to assimilate to European standard of beauty. It was not until the 1970s black power movement that African head wraps came back in style in the U.S. 

Celebrities like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill made colorful head wraps popular once again in the 1990s.

african head wraps, head wraps, african wrapsWhat’s Happening Today?

Head wraps have evolved to be significant and they possess immense cultural values in today’s world. In Yoruba tradition, for example, the gele can tell if a woman is single or married. If the end goes to the right she’s married and if it tilts to the left, she’s single.

South Africans on their part tie doek as a way of communicating to others that they are either married, engaged or bereaved. Xhosa women and women of Zulu culture cover their heads as a sign of respect to their in-laws or when they are visiting.

Furthermore, head wraps are worn during festivities, celebrations and in churches.  Traditional celebrations are an opportunity to witness the artistic beauty of African head wraps in full display. 

African head wraps are having yet another renaissance, thanks to the natural hair movement we are currently immersed in.

These wraps are also in the books international fashion designers who create new ways for them to be tied and also pair them with tribal earrings and diverse African prints outfits.

African head wraps have come a long way, both in time and distance. They have traveled across the globe with the African diaspora and have survived and thrived.  From the look of things, these wraps are likely here to stay, for thousands of years to come.