The finely woven head wraps are an undeniable statement of African culture and celebration, but it has not always been the case; before becoming an iconic fashion statement, they were associated with slavery and colonialism.
Originating from sub-Saharan Africa, these headwraps were initially worn by women during the early 1700s and often indicated their age, marital status and prosperity. Many queens from various areas adorned the traditional headwear, including Nubian queens who chose elaborate and rich fabrics woven with exotic and beautiful flowers.
Nigerian Queens often opted for lighter and finer materials for special occasions, and Egyptian royalty would rock stunning, elaborate headdresses. Although regularly spotted by powerful and inspirational royal ladies across the continent, African headwraps have been a consistent feature in the daily lives of many black women for years.
Traditionally, African ladies would wear headwraps to protect their hair and heads from the strong sun and keep cool in the hot weather. Not only were they a practical way of dealing with the harsh weather, but headwraps also represented a woman’s spirituality, wealth and social status within a community.
The Blunt Reality
The unique piece of clothing developed a very different meaning and statement in the United States and across Europe, where it soon became a symbol of slavery and servants. In 1735, the Negro Act was passed, which provided stipulations on what black people were allowed to wear. The act outlawed everything more extravagant than “Negro cloth, duffels, kerseys, osnabrigs, blue linen, check linen of coarse garlix, or calicoes, checked cottons or Scotch plaids.”
At a similar time in the Spanish colony in Louisiana, the “Edict of Good Government” was passed which stated that all black woman must wear “their natural hair bound in a kerchief” or a “tignon.”. Black ladies were also forbidden from wearing the same jewellery as women of European descent.
There was also a concern that a growing number of European men were finding biracial women more appealing, which was yet another reason for enforcing the wearing of headwraps. It was an attempt to discourage slave masters from pursuing women that were deemed to be beneath them.
Many white women also insisted on headwraps being worn by their slaves to avoid any confusion over who was the mistress. This resulted in enslaved black women being forced to wear headwraps as uniform, making them a symbol of slavery and inferior status in European areas.
Slaves Dress Code
As the white society had the power to control the dress code of the black population, it soon led to the headwrap becoming associated with the depiction of black ladies as ‘mammies’. These were enslaved women catering to the needs of white masters and mistresses, becoming a stereotype in their own right. The mammies were considered sassy yet motherly. The sole purpose was to look after the children and homes of white Americans.
Luckily, these strong-minded black women were not prepared to let the dress code of their African descendants mark their inferior status in a word of white supremacy, and they discovered their own unique ways to express themselves within the tight laws and controls of their masters.
The start of the 20th century saw the introduction of the first chemical relaxers designed to straighten and grow natural black hair. While the method was highly criticised for encouraging European beauty standards, it became popular among African-American women and led to the headwrap taking on a much more functional use. Headwraps were used to protect chemically treated hair from sweat, dirt and water which could affect how well the chemicals worked and hinder the hair growth.
Similar headwraps soon became popular among black men as well, with items such as the Durag used to maintain popular hairstyles including the conk. The Durag was a type of pressing cap that helped to protect chemically treated hair that was fashionably manipulated into soft waves.
The Black Power movement in the sixties and seventies saw a decline in chemically processed hair but did not stop the popularity of the head tie as a fashion statement among black women.
In the ’70s, headwraps became a central accessory of the Black Power Movement. It was stamped as a uniform of rebellion, a fashion statement, a way of reclaiming history. Previously shamed for them, black women used the headwrap and the afro to embrace their culture and style. The saying “Black is beautiful” with kente cloth headwraps is still the aesthetic of the celebration of African Americans.
Wearing a headwrap is a meaningful way to celebrate African culture. Every headwrap is unique, just like every woman. Finding one with a specific print or pattern may be tricky, but you can search “kente,” or colors like red, green, and black.
In the 21st century, more women wear headwraps as a fashion statement. It is safe to say that headwraps might not ever go out of style. Their growing popularity and evergreen style means there are many places to buy headwraps. Add a headwrap to your dynamic style, expressing yourself with every head turn.