Sunday, January 25, 2015

African American Wearing Head Scarves (History & Contemporary Styles)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part II of a three part series on tying head wraps (head scarves). Part II presents some information about the history of African American women wearing head scarves and showcases several video examples of some of the ways that contemporary Black women in the United States tie head scarves (head wraps).

This post doesn't purport to provide a complete history or a comprehensive description of scarf tying styles among African American women.

Click for Part I. Part I focuses on the Yoruba (Nigeria) custom of women wearing geles (head wraps). A video examples of Igbo women wearing headwraps (ichafus) can be found in the Addendum to that post.

Click for Part III of this series. Part III showcases on video examples of women from African nations other than Nigeria wearing tied head wraps.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and aesthetic reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks to those featured in these videos and thanks to the publishers of these videos on YouTube.

These quotes are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only. Most of these quotes serve to introduce (point to) the entire article.
1. From "Slave Women and the Head-Wrap

Originally the head-wrap, or turban, was worn by both enslaved men and women. In time, however, it became almost exclusively a female accessory. In the photograph above, the women wear head-wraps, while the men wear hats.

For their white European masters, the slaves' head-wraps were signs of poverty and subordination. Accounts of clothing distribution show that masters sometimes allotted extra handkerchiefs to their female slaves, ostensibly to be used as head coverings. In fact, in certain areas of the South, legislation appeared that required black women to wear their hair bound up in this manner.

The head-wrap, however, was more than a badge of enslavement imposed on female slaves by their owners. Embellishment of the head and hair was a central component of dress in various parts of Africa, particularly in West Africa. From the time European fabrics were made available to them, African women wore head-wraps similar to those worn by their enslaved counterparts in America. For these women, the wrap, which varied in form from region to region, signified communal identity. At the same time, the particular appearance of an individual head-wrap was an expression of personal identity...

In addition to white-enforced dress codes, and the headwrap's more practical uses, under specific conditions, headwraps also functioned as significant additions to southern African American religious ceremonies during the last century. A New Orleans journalist reported on a "voodoo rite" that he witnessed in 1828. "Some sixty people were assembled, each wearing a white bandana carefully knotted around the head..." (Crete, 1981:172). At a given moment in the ceremony, one of the women "tore the white hand- kerchief from her forehead. This was a signal, for the whole assembly sprang forward and entered the dance" (173).

Headwraps were included as one of the several special head coverings worn for more ordinary Christian religious events...

Women might wear headwraps for Sunday worship. Louis Hughes, born 1832, enslaved in Mississippi and Virginia, remembered "once when Boss went to Memphis and brought back a bolt of gingham for turbans for the female slaves. It was a red and yellow check, and the turbans made from it were only to be worn on Sundays" (1897) 1969:42). Fanny Kemble's description of the "grotesque" Sunday costume of the .poor" enslaved people on her husband's Georgia plantation included: "head handkerchiefs, that put one's very eyes out from a mile off..." (1863:93).4

In certain areas, customs related to head coverings for the religious camp meetings denoted the age of the women. For example, Gus Pearson, enslaved in South Carolina, remembered:

(De gals) took dey hair down out'n de string fer de (camp) meeting. In dern days all de darky wimmens wore dey hair in string 'cep' when dey 'tended church or a wedding. At de camp meetings de wimmens pulled off de head rags, 'cept de mammies. On dis occasion de mammies wore linen head rages fresh laundered (Narratives, Vol. 2.2:62).

The last function to be examined returns us to the symbolic-this time, to the

symbolic functions given the headwrap by African American women. In this case, some African American women played with the white "code" and, by flaunting the headwrap, converted it from something which might be construed as shameful into an -anti-style uniquely their own."...
With regard to the utilitarian purpose of head scarves, many African American women cover their hair at night to protect the hair style and guard against getting lint in their hair.

In America, the head-wrap was a utilitarian item, which kept the slave's hair protected from the elements in which she worked and helped to curb the spread of lice. Yet, as in Africa, the head-wrap also created community -- as an item shared by female slaves -- and individuality, as a thing unique to the wearer. Cassandra Stancil, enslaved in her youth, insisted that she never asked another woman how to tie her head-scarf. "I always figured I could do it," she said, "I could try and experiment and if not get that, get something that I liked."

The head-wrap was an object of oppression from one vantage point. But from the other, the perspective of the slave community, it was a vehicle of empowerment and a memento of freedom."

2. From "The African American Woman's Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols" By: Helen Bradley Griebel
"THE AFRICAN AMERICAN headwrap holds a distinctive position in the history of American dress both for its longevity and for its potent signification's. It endured the travail of slavery and never passed out of fashion. The headwrap represents far more than a piece of fabric wound around the head.

This distinct cloth head covering has been called variously "head rag," "head-tie," "head handkerchief," "turban," or "headwrap." I use the latter term here. The headwrap usually completely covers the hair, being held in place by tying the ends into knots close to the skull. As a form of apparel in the United States, the headwrap has been exclusive to women of African descent.

The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves similar functions for both African and African American women. In style, the African American woman's headwrap exhibits the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and worldview. In the United States, however, the headwrap acquired a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent. During slavery, white overlords imposed its wear as a badge of enslavement! Later it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the "Black Mammy" servant. The enslaved and their descendants, however, have regarded the headwrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of true homeland-be that ancient Africa or the newer homeland, America. The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity; but at its most elaborate, the African American woman's headwrap has functioned as a "uniform of rebellion" signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.'"...

3. From
"During the slavery period in the United States, African American women wore scarves that were later to become the do-rags of the 1930s to the 1960s. Do-rags were also used by African American men to hold chemically processed hair-dos in place while they slept. Originally they were most commonly made from women's stockings; these were called stocking caps, not do-rags. Now, many are made from polyester. Do-rags re-emerged as a fashion trend among urban youth in the 1990s and 2000s, first among African Americans, who used them to maintain their new hair styles. Do-rags are worn in a variety of colours, with black being the most common. Do-rags are regularly used to create and maintain waves and cornrowed hairstyles. They usually have long ties on either side that are wrapped around the head to secure the do-rag by tying behind the back. However, the old do-rags were not tied behind the head but on the front of the head."...
"Durag" is a contemporary spelling for "do-rag". Click for a how-to video of tying a durag.
Many African Americans and other Americans consider wearing a do-rag (du-rag) in public to be lower class, if not an indication that the wearer is a "gangster". Similarly, by at least the 1980s to date the custom of wearing certain colored paisly print handkerchief scarves was/is thought to indicate the wearer's membership in a particular street gang.

Click for information about the custom of Black women wearing a stocking cap or scarf at night to protect their hair and their style.
More random comments:
In the late 1960s to date, some Black American women (including me) wear hair wraps to "rep" (reprents) our African heritage. In the late 1960s to at least the 1980s I think that some Americans - including some Black Americans- usually mistakenly thought that any Black woman who wore a head wrap was a militant. Perhaps then and also now I think that a number of Americans (including Black Americans) often mistakenly think that all Black women who wear certain styles of head scarfs are Muslims.

The Black woman featured in the video given as Example #1 below shared that, similarly to wearing a 'fro (afro), women have to have a lot of self-confidence to wear that particular style of tied head scarves. I interpreted that to mean because people would look at you because you are different. A commenter to that video mentioned that she has been taunted because she wore a head wrap.

A frequent comment made by Black women in how-to tying scarves video that I watched mentioned that they wore those scarves when they were having a "bad hair day". In the context of those comments "bad hair day" means a day when your hair isn't looking good.

Also, note that a woman wrote on the viewer comment thread for the video given as Example #1 that she planed to wear a fashion head scarf because she was undergoing chemo therapy and her hair was falling out.

Notice the video below given as Example #3 which shows several styles of "turbans" which were worn by White women in the 1940s. Those styles appear to have been appropriated from African American fashions, Afro-Brazilian fashions, and/or other Black fashions. According to the narrators and some commenters, White women turned to tying head scarves because the material to make fashion hats was rationed during World War II.

These examples are presented in chronological order based on their posting date on YouTube with the oldest dated example given first.

Example #1: Head Wrap Tutorial

ForeverCurlyCatrina, Uploaded on Dec 31, 2010

This is my third time trying to record this video. Thankfully it finally worked out. I suggest you start out with your hair in a bun. Your hair doesn't have to be as fuzzy as mine was. This works well on smooth hair too :o)
Selected comments:
xoxoLaila, 2014
"Its funny how this is a trend for protective styling now. I've been doing this my whole life because I'm Muslim and I even got taunted just for wearing them. It's nice to see that people actually think they're beautiful now. They're also very modest looks as well."
xoxoLaila, 2014,
...+"Muslims arent the only people that do it either. There are some African cultures that wear headscarves for fashion as well. Dont be surprised if you get an Islamic greeting here or there though lol."

Eliana Tali, 2014
"This is an Israeli wrap, but it's gorgeous on you!"
[This commenter responded to criticism of this comment, by writing]

"Thank you, Victoria. G-d knows I wasn't trying to offend her, but give her a compliment!"
"Oh besides, there are many black Jews, and most aren't from Israel either"

Example #2: Headwraps - How to tie headwraps in a multitude of different ways

Woman In The Jungle, Uploaded on Aug 26, 2011

I wanted to wear a scarf last sunday morning so did some playing with a couple of my scarfs. SOrry for the shaky filming in some parts and cut my face out. I was filming on my phone and not my laptop which is a change for me. Hope you like what you see.
For what it's worth, style #3 is very similar to the way that I wear my head wraps. However, for some reason, I tie the ball on my left side instead of the right side. Also, I usually make a eight shaped (knot shaped) figure instead of a ball. That style is made by tying one end of the material into a ball and then tucking the other end into the top of that ball, sometimes with a small bit of that material on the top fluffed up or sticking out.

Example #3: How to Tie a Turban: Womens Turban Fashions - 1942 - [HD]

VintageFashions, Uploaded on Feb 27, 2012,

How to Tie a Turban - Fashion expert from Woman Magazine Anne Edwards combats rations with some turban fashions!

Example #4: How To: 15 Ways To Wear a Headscarf

LoveYourTressesPublished on Sep 5, 2013

Hi lovelies!!! Read for Measurement Info

For all of the headwrap/ headscarf lovers here's my take on some styles that will save you on bad hair days and that are all in all fun hairstyle alternatives!

Hope you enjoy, let me know your favorite style!!!

P.s. on a normal day I would wear a silk headscarf or shower cap underneath any of these wraps to protect my hair! Just left it out in the video to save time x…

Example #5: 5 Hottest Head Wrap Styles for TWA Hair

Sadora Paris, Published on Nov 27, 2013

When I'm having a bad hair day, I simply do one of these super cute head wrap styles & deal with whats happening underneath later =)

Music: "İsyankar" by Gizem İrem Gürel
"TWA" = tweeny weeny afro ; This usually refers to the hair length of a Black female who has recently switched from chemically straightened hair to her natural hair by doing "the big cut", i.e. cutting off much of her straightened hairhmaking "the nautur]U-

Example #6: How to Tie a Turban/Headwrap | 10 Different Styles + GIVEAWAY!!!(CLOSED)

Nadira037, Published on Dec 28, 2013

A number of Nigerian women living in the United States have posted videos on how-to tie head wraps (geles). Here's a video that I like posted by a Nigerian woman. I'm not sure if she is in the United States or not:

VID 20130102 00007

Faith Fajuyigbe Published on Jan 4, 2013

How to tie your Head Gear(Gele) African head wrap
Notice that some people-like the woman in this video- tie head wraps (head scarves) front to back and some tie the scarfs back to front.

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