The History of the Headwrap

By Wanja Wohoro


Throughout history, women and men of diverse backgrounds have used headwear to demonstrate their beauty, hair care and elements of their culture. Wearing a head-wrap not only offers a sense of community and represents woman's marital or religious status, but it can also be a symbolic way to defy oppressive forces and to lay claim to one's heritage, across genders. A dissemination of its uses throughout history and its significance in hundreds of different cultures is too vast a topic to take on in just a singular article. In this piece we will explore a few of its origins and uses in various cultures, centralising it to the African experience and how it has evolved to its current use in modern, contemporary African culture. 


The Head Tie in Afro-American History

Online, there is a great deal written about the origins of the head wrap in specific relation to African American women. It is a well documented history, steeped in symbolism and oppression. In 1786 in Louisiana, Governor Esteban Miro instituted the 'Edict of Good Government' which was to be a moral and legal guide for the social practices of the time, targeted specifically at black women. It forced black women to wear head wraps (called the 'tignon' in southern states of America) as a way to reinforce their 'subordinate' status as servants and to make them less alluring to men. It was also to discourage the social elevation of free black women, such as the Creole women, who had begun to dress and embellish themselves in a way that was increasingly displeasing to the white population and governing bodies at the time. The head scarf, though it had already been a part of the African heritage from which these slaves hailed, and a way to protect hair from the sun and from lice during their labour, had now been made into a significant and legally motivated symbol of black oppression. 

 Lisa Bonet - The Cosby Show

Lisa Bonet - The Cosby Show

As we learned in the History of the Jumpsuit, clothing serves as a powerful indicator of attitudes and the prevailing cultural norms within certain contexts. By reversing the imagery attached to certain forms of clothing, these items can become a signifier of a reversal of power and a reclamation of culture.

Over time as African Americans became increasingly integrated into the white community and fought for more agency and freedom in the post-civil-war years, the head wrap also resurfaced in the public fashion sphere, but with a new statement attached. From the 70's - 90's  black men and women within American popular culture began to claim their natural hair, release their afros, and started to embellish themselves in a way that no longer hid or made their blackness more palatable to white eyes, but made their blackness and African heritage a statement. In this time the head wrap and head pieces became more common popular dress. It was no longer reserved for bedtime hair-care, to be kept out of sight as an object of shame and sub-servitude, but became a way to change the narrative and bring back the beauty of celebrating black hair and black features.

Since then, the African American story has continued to evolve with younger generations of black youth increasingly exploring their heritage and discovering ways to celebrate it in their way of dress. This resurgence of 'Afro' culture in America is perhaps best seen through festivals such as Afropunk, which centralise black culture and encourage afro-positivity. 

The African Heritage of Head wraps

Across Africa the head wrap/turban or head tie goes by many names. In Botswana it is the Tukwi, in Malawi the Duku, in South Africa the Doek, in Zimbabwe the Dhuku, in Zambia the Chitambala, in Nigera and other parts of West Africa the Gele and the Moussor in Senegal (to name a few!). Each country, and even within that country, singular tribes, will have varying uses and attach different meanings to these wraps and the styles and colours used.

In many communities the head wrap is a sign of age and wisdom, only worn by women of a certain position in life and who are married. It is a signifier of a hierarchical social system based on not only wealth (though that is often a factor) but age and understanding. Different wrap styles and colours are also, in certain cultures, indicative of more specific information such as the marital status of the individual; whether she is engaged, married or widowed - a practice that extended outside of Africa to the Middle East and even to Europe in earlier eras.   

In Southern parts of Africa the head wrap (Doek) is worn by women on official visits to meet their in-laws or when visiting the houses of higher ranked members of the community as a sign of respect.  It gives a woman a degree of 'social clout' and significance in the community when worn.

A more common use, that can be seen in practically every nation in Africa, is the head wrap as an embellishment and an indication that a celebratory event is occurring. At weddings and family celebrations you would be hard pressed to find a woman above a certain age without a beautiful and complex, fashioned headpiece atop her head. It communicates a matriarchal and queenly image, an empowering symbol of feminine elegance and beauty. 

If you think by this point we have failed to mention the wearing of head pieces by men as well as women in countries and traditions across the world, fear not, as these types of head coverings for men are often instigated by religious institutions and beliefs, which is the next topic we will explore.

 Bonang Matheba wears a Maasai Shuka styled as a Southern African Doek 

Bonang Matheba wears a Maasai Shuka styled as a Southern African Doek 


HEad COvering, religion and rebellion

  H ijab Style- Source

Hijab Style- Source

As you would no doubt be aware, the practice of covering one's head for religious and devotional reasons is common to many faiths across the world. Perhaps the most obvious of these is Islam. In recent years the topic of the headscarf, hijab and the burka has become hotly contested especially in western nations.

It has become a political symbol as well as a religious one, even being banned in countries such as France on the basis that the coverings are too overt a symbolism of religious zeal within a secular nation. However, Islam is only one of many other religions that use this practise of head covering to not only outwardly demonstrate their faith, but as a way to personally be reminded, moment to moment, of their commitment to their religion.

There are quite a few sects of Christianity that use head coverings either as daily wear or in sacred places. In fact, up until the mid 1960's Catholic women were mandated to cover their heads during Mass with a thin veil.

More examples of male religious head coverings are;  the Keffiyeh كوفية‎‎ - a long cotton and wool headdress bound over the head by a circle of rope called the 'agal'. It is worn differently by men and women throughout the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, often with strong religious and nationalist associations.

The Jewish Kippah or Yarmulke - which is a brimless cap worn by Orthodox Jews in accordance with their religious instruction.

The Sikh Turban (Dastar) - A symbol of spiritualism in Sikhism Tied in many styles for varying ages. These are just a few examples of such head wraps for men, steeped in tradition and religious obedience.

These head wraps bear a certain weight within their culture as different governments, wars and systems of power have compromised the use of head wear throughout history, making it flit in and out of common dress and eventually history evolves some of these religious head pieces into rebellious political symbols.

An example of this can be seen during the French Algerian War where the controversial 'Haik' (a traditional veil worn by Algerian women) was worn as a sign of resistance to French colonisers who were trying to eradicate its usage. Though it is no longer worn commonly in Algeria due to the large Muslim population and influence, there are those that would seek to have it integrated back into Algerian culture as it is a symbol of their origins and their struggle. 


The Contemporary Headwrap

In this article we have had little glimpses into how the head wrap and head-coverings are used across the globe, but specifically in the African and Middle Eastern regions, to serve a plethora of cultural and social functions. Whether it is for aesthetics, religious and political statements, or as a sign of your place in society, the simple action of covering ones head has had huge implications in the history of the world. Whole cultures evolve and function around these practises and what they represent, be it wealth, devotion or individualism. 

In contemporary, urban African and black spaces, the head wrap is now gaining new traction as African prints and fabrics become increasingly popular amongst designers and in popular African style. What is the motivation behind this desire to rekindle and re-adapt our African heritage? Perhaps it is reactionary to the homogenisation and westernisation that we see on our computer screens and phone screens daily. Perhaps we as young Africans seek to stake our place on the world stage, solidifying our identity with the unique, mysterious and beautiful history that came before us.

This is why at Kung'ara Kenya we seek to give exposure to young designers with their innovative styles and Afro-centric mindsets. Designers such as Ziki from Afrofanatic not only create beautiful and functional, Kenyan-made designs, but come from the viewpoint that the time has come to support and build our creative industries, locally and from the ground up. We have a legacy to create. 

Over the coming months we will be spotlighting more and more young entrepreneurs and their stories, learning from their failures, successes and challenges how to continue to change the face of the creative industries in Kenya. 


Kung'ara Team 


To order some of Afrofanatic's beautiful headwraps shop here!

To read our last piece on the history of the Jumpsuit and how it fits into the current Kenyan textiles industry head here!