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The Epic History of African Headwraps and Their Different Styles

The History and Different Styles of African Headwraps
Worn with pride by both men and women, the African headwrap is a colorful piece of fabric and an embodiment of rich culture and history. Fashionhance traces the history and different styles of the African headwraps.
Mary Anthony
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
Did you Know?
Headwraps have been a regular way of head adornment since the ancient times, the royal queens of Nigeria and West Africa wore headwraps made of damask (heavy silk) known as 'Gele'.
The headwrap is not just a fabric covering the head, it's magic woven with history. For women, it's their identity in society―a beautiful adornment that makes them feel unique. Headwraps are draped in every region of Africa as they protect the wearer from extreme heat, sandstorms, and cold. They even symbolize various cultures and traditions with patterns and fabric playing a defining role. Most women create handwoven headwraps or spin their own ones, while women from the affluent class buy expensive and imported pieces of fabric. Material status and success are two distinguishing factors that are displayed by a headwrap. They very subtly convey an underlying message of the position the wearer holds in society. Here are some facts and styles of this rich fabric tradition.
The History and Significance of African Headwraps
The African headwraps originated from sub-Saharan Africa, worn as headcovers by Africans, mainly women, since the early 1700s. Within the African culture, the headwraps determine the age, marital status, and prosperity of a woman. In ancient times, Nubian queens, wore it elaborately with rich fabrics and exotic flowers woven together; Nigerian queens wore it of finer material, and during special occasions, as head adornment. The Egyptian royalty wore it as an elaborate headdress. Historic depictions from the 18th Egyptian dynasty show, Kiya, the second wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, and Tiye, the mother of Akhenaten and the Great Royal wife of Pharaoh Amenhotep III, wearing it. An early 1707 painting which was created by Dirk Valkenburg, a Danish painter, shows a group of African slave women wearing headwraps that appeared high on the forehead and were draped above the ears.

During the period of slavery in America, the whites had certain legal codes of conduct which included headwraps being worn by slave women to cover their hair, to serve the purpose of absorbing perspiration, preventing infestation of lice, and to keep the hair clean from dirt during agricultural activities. The white masters considered this as the symbol of enslavement, poverty, and submission. Later, it became a prominent emblem of freedom, equality, and empowerment.

In the African culture, it varies from region to region, and signifies communal and personal identity. It serves a very important purpose during religious ceremonies and customs. It is reported that over 60 million people follow the African Traditional Religion (ATRs), known in Cuba as Lukumi, and Santeria in Brazil. In other parts of the Caribbean, it is called Voudoun (Haiti) and Shango (Trinidad). Covering one's head is considered sacred in these traditions, especially, for an initiated priestess in the Lukumi-Cuban tradition. In modern times, the headwrap is fast evolving as a fashion hair accessory and also as a symbol of uniqueness for the immigrant African community.
Types of African Headwraps
The African Turban
African Turban Headwrap
Turbans have been a sign of nobility and religiosity for the Africans. The Akurinu, a Christian denomination in Kenya, wear white turbans as a religious covering on their heads. They are more prominent in the Horn of Africa, which is a sign of the ruling Muslim empire, and are worn by the Sultans, Wazirs, nobles, and other aristocrats and court officials. It is the emblem of status and wealth. African women wear it more often as it is believed that bigger the size of the headdress more beautiful the women looks.

On the style quotient, a turban looks trendy on natural hair, and the monochromatic color and silk fabric accentuates its features. It also comes handy on a bad hair day.
The Gele
African Gele Headwrap
Gele is the Yoruba word for female headwrap. They have been part of Nigerian tradition for generations, and have originated from the Yoruba people, the largest ethnic group who live in Southern Nigeria, towards the south of the Sahara desert.

It is a large rectangular fashionable cloth made out of stiff yet flexible materials like Aso-oke (thickly woven silk), brocade (cotton), and damask of rich colors and designed into different patterns. The women tie it around their head, covering their hair fully, and knotting it at the back of their neck in varied elegant fashions. It represents the style and personality of the wearer; what is amazing is, no two Gele's look alike. Presently, it has become sort of a work of art with women which they wear for weddings, birthdays, baptisms, or even funerals as a fashion statement.
The Tignon
African Creole Headwrap
Pronounced as tiyon, the Tignon is a colorful array of headscarves tied around the head to look like a turban resembling the West African gélé. It first originated in the Spanish colonial era in Louisiana, due to the Tignon laws passed in 1785 under the administration of Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró. This law placed a prohibition on black and multiracial women to expose their hair in public as they believed it will attract the attention and affection of white men. The law was established to distinguish the women of color from their white counterparts, and to curb them from looking beautiful in their long hairstyles and hairdos. But the women of Creole started to wear their tignons in bright exotic colors and decorated it with exquisite pieces of jewelry, which allured the attention of men. They ended up looking more beautiful in spite of the discriminating laws.

Every women styled it in her own way. The popular fabric used was Madras, which became a classic adaptation. In present day American culture, they are worn during Creole-themed weddings and significant celebrations by African women, turning it into a symbol of African pride.
Though once a sign of oppression and submission, the headwrap has become a quintessential and eccentric piece of fashion what with more African-American women trading this colorful piece of history as their personal symbol of freedom and expression.