Untying the African headwrap

Untying the African head wrap - a short history!

headwrapping main image

                   Photo: Anna Fayemi




ankara aso-oke, burqa gele, doek, douiette, duku, gwam, chemise-jupe, , hijab, headscarf, headband kinta, kerchiefs, Tête en l'Air, Tête Calendee, scarf, ties, tigon, turban tukwi, vail, wrap,


All over the world, every culture on every continent use some form of head covering. We will be exploring the fascinating tradition of wrapping our heads, its influences and symbolism across the African diaspora.

How we wrap our hair
It is sometimes possible to detect the geographic background of the wearer by the method and style in which they wrap their heads. Interestingly, there are two distinct styles: downwards for western cultures and upwards for African.

Its appeal
The beauty and appeal of the hair wrap in black culture is the overall appearance. The uniquely organic shape sits on the head like a crown to beautifully frame the face and elongate the neck to give a very elegant and regal appearance.

head_wrap eurolady

Why we wrap our hair
The practice of wrapping our head can be:

  1. religious – to show respect to the higher power.
  2. spiritual – to make a deeper connection and show solidarity.
  3. practical – to protect the wearer from external forces and pollutants.

In many African tribal societies it has long been the tradition for hair to always be neat, tidy and of course beautifully styled. If this could not be maintained because of time or practicalities then the head should be covered.


Why are particular type of fabrics used?
Repeatedly you may see particular fabrics and patterns being used. Some are very symbolic and deeply imbedded in each country’s historical past. We will explore two examples here: the Madras cloth worn in many of the Caribbean islands and the gele (gay-lay) worn throughout Africa but especially by the Yoruba people.

The Madras cloth – In the Caribbean & the Americas
The original Madras was of a plain cotton made in the Madras region of southern Indian (now Chennai). During the 1800s, the Scottish presence in India not only dominated the political landscape but influenced the design of the Madras cloth to include a tartan stripe design.

According to Zamor, the Scottish controlled all trade activities and used the East India Company to export the new design to African and Middle-eastern countries. The popularity of the Madras became particular strong in Britain and French speaking countries.

fashion tartan


The practice of wrapping heads during this time was largely compulsory for slaves to the extent that kerchiefs were issued as part of the uniform to differentiate roles on the plantation such as field slave and house slave.

In addition, communicating and courtships were restricted and controlled. The Madras head wrap became an ingenious instrument in which to communicate and the women created a head tie called the ‘Tête en l'Air ‘ or Tete Calendee  (‘head in the air’), wrapped like a beret with added flourishes of peaks which were not just decorative but communicated crucial information to a potential suitor such as:

One peak – I am single.
Two peaks – I am married.
Three peaks – I am a widow.
Four peaks  - I am available & can be approached for courting.

tete en lair 

The Americas - Louisiana
After the abolition of slavery the relatively small numbers of European females that remained complained about the competition that freed slaves posed to their men folk. As a result, Governor Miro passed a law for women of colour to cover their heads with a knotted kerchief and to refrain from “excessive attention to dress”. It was hoped the Tignon law would prevent freed women looking too attractive and would create an inferior social class that were easily recognisable by their dress.

Instead of restricting freed women, the Tigon Law created a sub-culture where kerchiefs and surplus clothes were adapted to create organically shaped headpieces, decorated with flowers, jewellery, beads, and feathers to compliment the dress of fashionable freed women.

Today, many variations of Madras are used throughout the Caribbean, America and Guyana. There are many variations of the Tigon and Tete en l’Air throughout the islands, especially French Caribbean countries.

The Gele
The gele (gay-lay) is the most popular form of head wrap and is worn by the Yoruba culture which extends from West Africa to Benin, Ghana and Togo, with its largest population in Nigeria.

Today, geles are probably the most extravagant form of head wraps but this was not always the case. In traditional Yoruba culture it was much simpler in style and like the Tete en l’Air of the Caribbean its purpose was to communicate the wearer’s status depending on its structural lean:

A gele ends leaning to the left - I am single.
A gele ends leaning to the right - I am married.

main gele


Modern geles are opulent and flamboyant in order to display the wearer’s fabulousity. They are made from intricately woven fabrics of rich vivid yarns that convey the wearer’s sophistication and strong sense of style.

Gravity defying shapes require a certain level of grace and deportment to carry it off. The overall effect will not only to make you stand out from the crowd, but give the wearer a majestic elegance and graceful presence.

Today the wearing of the gele is the must-have fashion accessory associated more with conspicuous consumption than tradition. No longer restricted to only the wealthy, anyone can take part in displaying their wealth, aspirations and position in society.

avant gele


Why should I wrap my hair now?

We are fortunate enough to be able to make our own choices on whether to cover our heads or not.  If you already wrap your hair you will already know the sense of pride you feel. If you have never wrapped your hair before, it may be something you may wish to try, for each time you do you will connect with thousands of years of heritage.

Why not join us, as we celebrate rich heritage and show us - send in your creative wraps to afrodite and show us - How you rock yours?



Dutch wax prints
Although not covered here, Dutch wax prints also deserve a mention – click here  to find out more.

Main photos: Anna Fayemi - styling: Stéphanie Moussé - hair and make up: Sandra Bermingham - model: Sherene McNichols

The Tignon and Women of Color in Old New Orleans, African American Resource Center, New Orleans Public Library
“code Noir” http://jshc.org/emergence-of-the-martiniquan-gwan-wob/

EK Howard - Symbolic significance of Arican Prints:A dying phenonmenon in contemporary print designs in Ghana
Hélène Zamor - Indian heritage in the french Creole-speaking Caribbean, A reference to Madras Material

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