Head Wrap Transition Through Culture and History

Head Wrap Transition Through Culture and History

young African woman in tignon

A head wrap is a piece of fabric of different size, color, texture and origin used to wrap ones head.

A head wrap is currently seen as a fashion statement. I am Kenyan but I have lived in America for most of my adult life. These are my different perspectives.

All over Africa the head wraps have been worn, by both men and women. They’ve been worn as a way of protection, cultural expression, personal and religious significance. Head wraps are identified using different names depending on the country you are in. In Kenya it is known as a Kilemba. I come from the swahili coast of Kenya. We use a lot of the Kanga and Kitenge fabrics which are popular in Kenya, as headwraps and body wraps. Like Kenya, each culture makes the wrap look like a work of art. One usually takes time to wrap it in such intricate styles that in many cultures, some individuals have specialized this art to a lucrative business.

kanga history in swahili coast
a picture showing kanga history in swahili coast
women wearing kanga
women in swahili coast kenya wearing kanga
swahili woman in kanga
swahili woman adorns herself with beautiful kanga
modern man wearing kanga
'King Kanga' photo of modern man wearing kanga. Photo by el photographia

I am sure you are familiar with the Nigerian Gele.

It is a masterpiece of art. Other popular one’s are the Sudanese tagelmust and Tuareg turban, beautiful and long worn by mostly men. There are so many other cultures that wrap their heads. Senegal, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Libya, Ghana, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and many other  African countries have and still use head wraps. Usually the fabric is very colorful and bright. It also has different patterns synonymous with those regions that fabric is from.  I have had customers who have inquired if they can get a head wrap in pastel colors! I always tell them, pastel is not on the “african” color wheel. Lol

The head wrap usually to signifies different things.

For instance, one’s marital status and economic status. Based on the culture you come from certain headwraps are tied to show one is single or taken. Therefore, there’s no way would you approach someone without having an idea of how to interact with them. Other times it signifies the current status quo i.e  mourning period, wedding or any other celebration. These are seen as bold wraps with particular colours to signify specific moods. Black is of course death and white and gold is marriage. In cultures of the Tuareg men, the weather contributes majorly to what they wear. Their turbans serve as protective gear from harsh sun and strong winds of the desert.

woman wrapping gele
a woman wraps a gele on another woman
woman wearing gele
Nigerian woman wearing a traditional gele
man wearing turban
dogon man from Mali wearing turban
men wearing tagelmust
tuareg men wearing indigo dyed tagelmust

Many African women like my sister wear these wraps daily.

Women who work on farms use them as protection under the sun. However, many prefer wearing these as daily head wraps. They are treated with a greater level of respect than those who don’t. As far as young women are concerned, the way one wears it ensures they attract only those who understand and embody this kind of respect. Personally, I put on my wrap because they look amazing. I do have a variety from Kenya but I always want more.

Growing up I realized that both my maternal and paternal grandmothers would complete their outfits with a head wrap. I did not understand this at first but after a couple of conversations and thorough observation, I realized this was more of a crown. They use them to signify their age, the fact that they are mothers and respectful members of the community. My mother also put on head wraps but she has never been too much of a fan. She only wore hers while attending cultural functions. In any other instance she would rather go with a hat or her strong bold short hairdo.

mom and lea
mom and lea after a morning walk

Here in the US, I found out that these were used by the “slave masters”.

It was a way to show who was owned and who was free. At that time, women put on head-wraps to protect their head from harsh weather conditions in the fields and from pests like lice and ringworms. Some places in the South required slave women to keep their heads wrapped at all times. It was used to hide their beauty and pride of African hair. After abolition of slavery, they did not need to put on head wraps anymore. But as time went by, the head wrap became more like a symbol of rebellion. This was to show they will always fight for their freedom and equality.

I believe this came about once the sisters and brothers learned their cultural and true historical significance.  That wearing a turban or wrap was something that set them apart through their royal roots they embraced and loved.

During the late 18th century,

African and Creole women in Louisiana were sanctioned to wear head wraps called tignons. This is because they wore their hair “in such elaborate ways that it attracted the attention of caucasian men.” The Louisiana government passed laws to effectively regulate African women’s hair.

The “tignon laws” were to not only prevent African women from getting (unwanted) attention from caucasian men but also to curb caucasian women’s jealousy. At the time, it was customary for caucasian, Spanish, and Creole men to have placées, or openly kept mistresses. And more often than not, they were choosing African and Creole women to be their mistresses instead of caucasian women.

However, this was heavily resisted. African women began to wear bright-colored tignons. They proceeded to adorn them with jewels and other accessories, and used different styling techniques to wrap their hair. What was meant to signify African women as inferior and hide their beauty was actually used to enhance it, thanks to the women’s ingenuity.

18th century woman
painting of African woman in 18th century Louisiana
young African woman in tignon
young African woman in tignon head wrap

The biggest difference and what makes a head wrap so unique is the way it is tied.

There are so many ways of wrapping a piece of cloth on your head. In the west, most individuals tie it either under their chin or at the lower part of the head right at the nape. I would say that these are more of scarves. The head wrap and the way it is mainly worn, whether by the Queens or Kings, is often worn more so like a crown. It is the most apparent thing of the outfit and even if you really try you will for sure not miss it at all.

We also take pride in inspiring women like Nina Simone and Maya Angelou. They wore the wrap with pride in very beautiful and modest ways. These strong bold women played and still play big roles in freeing the minds of our brothers and sisters in our communities. They do this through elaborate and deliberate positive messaging in music and poetry during the civil rights movement. Their work of art lives on until today.

The head wrap is not going anywhere.

Women are wearing their natural hair, the head wrap has become a necessary fashionable protective styling option. This is my go to when it comes to protecting my hair. I am also always trying to learn how to tie the head wrap for different occasion. While attending a formal tea party, I was able to tie my wrap into a high fashion statement. I also put on my head wraps to work in my very conservative workplace.

It is my believe that one has to know how to put on a wrap, own et and carry that crown proper for it to look like it belongs on the head it is on. The one question I do get quite often is how to wrap it. I advise that just like natural hair, one needs to learn how to tie a head wrap based on how it works for them.

Nina Simone in headwrap
Nina Simone in beautiful head wrap and matching dress
Maya Angelou in head wrap
Maya Angelou in beautiful head wrap with one of her books in hand

If you want to try a head wrap and you do not know where to start, look no further than the Murahaba shop.  Be sure to take advantage and enjoy the large variety of African head wraps and the specials that we have every day. If you want to learn how to tie a head wrap too, just go ahead and check out our YouTube channel for a little guidance. 

Thank you for reading. If you feel we left something out, feel free to add it in the moment section below. We are always happy to learn more from all our readers.

woman in big head wrap
Photo of African Head dress shoot by photographer Lauren Fletcher
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