African head scarves have been a key symbol of the African and African-American culture for decades. These colorful pieces of clothing represent the rich history of the African people and can be worn by both men and women.
African-American women, who wish to preserve their heritage, usually choose to wear these head scarves. But one thing you should note is that the African head scarf conveys a different meaning depending on where and when it’s worn. Similarly, this head scarf relays a different message when it’s worn by men that it does when worn by women. In this article, we explain the history and types of African head scarves.
Features of African Head Scarves
Unlike many other head coverings, a distinct feature of the African head scarf is that it covers one’s entire head. This is contrary to contemporary head scarves, which can be styled to cover only a portion of the head and hair.
Another aspect that sets the African head scarf apart is how it’s tied. Usually, the wearer has to make a knot at the base of the head scarf. One of the reasons why it’s styled in this manner is to make the facial features of an individual appear striking. In doing so, anyone who looks at the individual wearing an African head scarf will focus more on their face and not the rest of the body.
Types of African Head Scarves
As stated briefly in our article about ‘head scarves,’ there are three main types of African head scarves. Although they all look similar, there are subtle differences between them, which are based on the community that inspired their creation.
Each African community has a different name for this head scarf. Among the Yoruba—an ethnic community in southwestern and north-central Nigeria—it’s referred to as Gele. African head scarves have a cultural symbol of Nigerian traditions for centuries.
Gele is a big head scarf that is rectangular in shape. It’s made of tough but flexible materials such asthickly woven silk and cotton. This head scarf is available in different colors and patterns. Women usually wrap it around their heads so that their hair is fully covered. They then knot the head scarf at the back of their necks in different styles. The Gele is considered a form of art; so much so that both African and African American women are wearing these head scarves to weddings, birthday parties and other important events.
This is one of the more common head scarves sold throughout the United States. The Tignon has a close resemblance to the West African Gele.
Tignon head scarves came about during the Spanish colonial era in Louisiana. In 1785, Governor Esteban Rodriguez passeda law forbidding black and multiracial women from exposing their hair in public. According to Esteban, women of color were doing this so as to seek the attention of white men.
With the passing of this law, there would be a clear distinction between women of color and their white counterparts. But soon after this law was established, the women of Creole took to wearing Tignons in bright exotic colors that made them stand out. They also decorated these head scarves with expensive jewelry and this attracted many men. So, despite the discriminating law, women of color ended up looking more beautiful.
In present-day America, Tignons are very common in African-themed weddings and other significant events organized by African-American women. In many ways, the Tignon has become a symbol of African pride.
In the African culture, turbans are symbols of religion and nobility. For instance, the Akurinu—a Christian community found in Kenya—wear white turbans to symbolize their faith. However, turbans are more common in the Horn of Africa, where they are worn by Muslims.
Sultans, Wazirs, and nobles often wear turbans to represent their religion. These African head scarves are also used to symbolize wealth and status.
Recently, African turbans have become a popular fashion accessory among African-American women. They look trendy on natural hair and they’re very handy garments when you’re having a bad hair day.
A Brief History of the African Head Scarf
During the colonial era, many masters in South America and the Caribbean required the enslaved black women to wear head scarves. Although they were largely worn as symbolic markers of inferiority and slavery, these African head scarves provided functional benefits. For instance, they helped to protect the women’s scalps from the harsh rays of the sun during summer. They also prevented sweat, grime, and bugs.
But it did not take long for the enslaved black women to come up with creative ways of resisting this practice. For instance, black women living in Suriname, Central America, added folds to their head scarves so as to relay coded messages amongst themselves.
Another way of resisting was expressed by Afro-Creole women who chose to decorate their Tignons using jewelry and ribbons. Eventually, the African head scarf became a defiant fashion statement among women of color.
Even after slavery was abolished in the United States, many African-American women continued wearing head scarves in creative styles. Unfortunately, this trend soon began being associated with servitude. To adapt to the dominant culture, a majority of the black women started embracing the Eurocentric standards of fashion and beauty. This is what led to African head scarves becoming less popular in the early 20th century. Nonetheless, a few black women continue wrapping their hair in silk and satin head scarves to maintain their hairstyles.
In the 1970s, head scarves became a primary accessory of the Black Power uniform of rebellion. Although it was initially used to shame African American citizens, this head scarf started being embraced by many. In the 1990s and early 2000s, celebrities like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu popularized the towering African head scarves. Just as musicians were beginning to repackage black music styles such as jazz, these head scarves helped to pay tribute to a rich history of black hair culture. Soon after, African head scarves entered the fashion mainstream.
Currently, the African head scarf is a common accessory throughout the United States. As the natural hair movement continues gaining momentum, many women are turning to this stylish protective style accessory.
The Bottom Line
African head scarves have come a long way from serving as markers of oppression and slavery. Presently, these head scarves are a quintessential and elegant piece of fashion. More and more African-American women are wearing these head scarves not just as fashion accessories but also as a way of expressing their freedom and culture.
Other Head Scarf Options
There are also head scarves made from silk material – this is become a popular option among many.