The History of Headwraps and Black Culture
*We may earn commission from links on this page, but we only recommend products we back.
Headwraps are a vital part of many cultures, especially in parts of the African region. Headwraps, traditional attire is known or called different names depending on the specific area. For instance, the Yorubas in Nigeria, a country located in West African, call their folded wraps 'geles'. On the other hand, the Ghanaians refer to headwraps as 'dukus.' While the Namibians and South Africans often call their headwraps 'doek.'
However, it is essential to know that the headwraps, which are known to be called many names in various African countries, do mean many things when worn. When styled, it could represent a show of marital status, mourning, wealth, ethnicity, and a couple of other things.
This hair fashion is still very much in vogue. Before anything else, let's discuss what they signify in this modern era.
Headwraps and what they stand for in this modern era
Headwraps indeed have some African roots linked to it. However, they have taken on an entirely different meaning in this modern time.
Spiritually, African women and Black women have adopted head coverings as a religious aesthetic. From hijabs in the Islamic tradition to White lace coverings in the Catholic and Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Black women have known that covering one’s head is an act of faith. In traditional African religions, a new initiate (Iyawó) is easily identified by wearing White from head to toe, including a headscarf that must be worn at all times. This is true in Ifá, Santería, Candomblé, Lucumí, and many other derivative and contemporary faiths. Sangomas, South African healers, cover their heads with wigs and scarves, often with ornate beads and threads. And, even the plumes of modern-day Baptist church hats harken back to the same shared ancestor – the head scarf.
Some women wear headwraps before going to sleep to prevent them from getting all kinky or relatively dry due to cotton pillowcases. Headwraps have been more or less a remedy for most women who couldn't style their hair. The thing about headwraps is that it does save time for women who, one way or the other, have a few activities that they would want to do in haste without having to bother with their hair dangling and obstructing them.
Many African women do rock headwraps to attend weddings, funerals, baby showers, and many other cultural festivities to this very day.
With the way the world is fast becoming digitalized, it is essential to know how to tie a headwrap as it is invariably made available on many YouTube channels. Plus, these channels offer a procedural process on how to tie a headwrap in different cultures or heritage.
History of Headwraps
Headwraps have been around for quite a considerable amount of years or rather centuries. During the 18th century, black Africans rocked the headwraps as a way of distinguishing themselves from other religions or rather races.
During the slave era, many of the slave owners enforced a rule to ensure black women had head coverings. Headscarves aimed to protect the head from lice, the sun, and even sweat. However, they were more or less symbolic markers. It meant that black women who wore head coverings or headwraps were being made to appear as a lesser value in the social space as at then.
Despite being forced to do things contrary to their beliefs, what black women did was create several ways to resist. Some of them wore their wraps or coverings in a way that would send signals among themselves, which was indeed void of their master's knowledge. This communication process was common in Central America like Suriname.
In 1865, black American women continued creatively wearing headwraps, even after abolishing slavery. However, while rocking the style, it became more associated with homeliness. The more black women who wore headwraps, the more it brought about a stigma and the past years' thoughts.
For black women to become more socially recognized, they began to teach or, better yet, embrace Eurocentric standards for acceptance as well as to be seen as a professional in society back then. Such acts leading to a rebellion, most especially from the black communities, as this happened during the 20th century.
However, this didn't deter most women as they continued to wrap their hair in silk, especially at home, to preserve hairstyles all throughout the week.
Fast forward to 1970, many African women who wore the headwraps embraced it, and something which initially was cast aside or used to shame those African descendants was now generally being celebrated.
The Dress Code: Slavery to Segregation
During slavery era, slave owners were responsible or preferably in charge of blacks' dress code. As a result, the headwraps became associated with the black women referred to as 'mammies.'
These women were responsible for catering to their masters' children, their mistress, and their masters. The 'mammies,' as they were well known as back then, were more or less a mother figure. However, these women weren't going to be put down easily or let their inferior status tarnish them. Rather than bow their heads low, they rose and discovered various ways to be expressive within the laws of their masters by wearing their headwraps in different ways.
Also, black men embraced headwraps, and it was highly popular with the durag and the conk, which helped maintain hairstyles. The durag, a pressing cap, was often worn to protect chemically treated hair that was one way or the other turned into soft waves. Even though the chemically processes hair saw a decline in the sixties and seventies, it didn't make the head tie-less popular among black women. Between 1960s and 1970s, men and women began to unapologetically reclaim their heritage as a means of rebellion and pride.
Black Girl Magic
In the early 1990s and 2000s, Lauryn Hill, an artist and other prominent artists like Erykah Badu, popularized new styling of wraps for the next set generation. These artists' head coverings were a form of them paying tribute to black women of centuries past and showcasing the rich culture that blacks possess.
Even though, as of then, the style was quite unpopular in the African Diaspora, headwraps quickly came to the limelight.
In 2019 the state of California ruled that it was illegal to discriminate in workplaces and schools on the basis of natural hair with the CROWN Act. Reclaiming pride in traditions and claiming the undeniable beauty of Blackness requires constant effort. Headscarves have been allies in the work place for blacks – keeping them protected from harm, acting as a canary in the coal mine to communicate with our people, and as an unabashedly boisterous crown of pride – worn high and bright. It is a reminder of that which is already within (strength, royalty, and the legacy of an unbreakable people). It is the head wrap that serves as a unique historical commonality among Black women across the diaspora, and the history of surviving within societies that enforce assimilation.
No matter where you travel throughout the African diaspora, whether it be throughout the United States, South America, or Africa, the head scarf has stood the test of time and remains an important part of Black culture – pre-colonial, colonial, and present day. Using headwraps as protection is still a very valid act of self-care. As Maya Angelou said “Your crown has been bought and paid for. Put it on your head and wear it.”
Looking for a headwrap, check out this brand on Amazon!