By Rose Miyonga
With the prominence of smart, beautiful women of colour in the pubic eye wearing head wraps, it might seem like head wraps are having a renaissance. But i would argue that they never went away. Phenomenal women like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lupita Nyong’o and Zadie Smith deserve credit for wearing their head wraps with such style and grace, and their power is only enhanced by the fact that the history of the garment makes them part of a long tradition of women of African origin defying the conventions of Western beauty standards and standing tall and powerful at the intersection between tradition and avant-garde.
Head wraps are worn by women and men all over the world for various cultural, social and religious reasons, and the history of the head wrap in Africa is diverse.
The African American head wrap has a distinct story. At one time it was mandatory for slaves to cover their hair and, as photographer Juliana Kasumu discovered while working in her photo-series, Moussour to Tignon: The Evolution of the Head-Tie, head wraps were made compulsory for Black women, freed and enslaved in 1786 by Esteban Rodríguez Miró. The governor of Louisiana and Florida decreed that black women, both freed and enslaved, had to wear a head wrap as a means of racial classification.
But like all policies intended to strip Black women of the natural power of their Afro hair throughout history have, it failed.
Kasumu notes: “They looked even more beautiful, and more appealing, and they used to decorate these head wraps with jewels, and plumes. They became more attractive if anything. It just backfired.”
For me, the head wrap is like a crown that gives height, power and presence. It connects me to a long legacy of Black women who refused to crush their beauty to make other people feel more comfortable. Sometimes it’s functional, like when I rub homemade leave-in conditioner into my hair and wrap it to let it soak in, but more often it’s because of how it makes me feel. It makes me stand tall, think hard and feel proud.
“Like all hairstyles for black women, headwraps mean a myriad of things to me. From protective style, to channelling Royal African Realness, emulating Erykah Badu, or even just feeling too lazy to do something with my hair, I find that it’s a look that gets to adapt and change with my mood and style.
My Aunty Chipili was always in headwraps; different materials, different prints and always tied in new ways. I guess symbolically for me it was and still is her crown. A sense of pride exudes from black women who wear headwraps and they also emit a regal energy – I mean look at Nefertiti.
Style inspo firstly comes from every single Igbo and Yoruba aunty heading off to a wedding or Sunday service in the most deluxe gele’s, their looks and fabrics are consistently immaculate. Also, I remember, as a kid my mum having a cassette of Miriam Makeba lying around and being enamoured by Miriam’s noble headwrap and dangly earrings on the cover art. Solange always has fun with it her looks and headwraps and Erykah Badu’s layering techniques are killer. I really love how Nina Simone’s wraps matched the fabrics of her designer suits and bespoke chic clothes. She’s a lasting symbol of opulence and unapologetic blackness.
Last, but not least, Aunty Chipili, who like Nina, always wore whatever she wanted and paired it with an elegantly-tied headwrap.”
“The creative process for styling any of Lupita’s looks is always a joint effort between myself, Lupita and her stylist. Like me, Lupita is always filled with ideas. Her hair is so versatile and we both get excited talking about our visions and possibilities for it. There must be a balance though, of fabulous hair that works with the overall styling; complementing what she is wearing, not distracting from it.
For the Queen of Katwe promotional tour, premieres and so on, Lupita knew that she wanted to wear a head wrap. We started thinking about this about a year in advance and researched sources from all over the world. Our main influence which helped to inform our vision of what we wanted to achieve, was African tribes.
Her stylist and I spent quite a long time in various markets and fabric stores in Kenya, sourcing materials. We took these to the design houses that Lupita was working with, who then either used the same fabric for fashioning her dress or used it to inspire their own choice of fabric.
Lupita had to explain to her fashion houses that we wouldn’t know exactly how her head wraps would look, until the day. On the day of styling any head wrap, I always think that the most important thing is to approach it with a flexible mindset and be prepared to go with the flow. Because each piece of material will bend, shape and fold in its own way. Create with the material.
Styling a head wrap in a modern way, for me, boils down to these three things: creating height, a striking silhouette and choosing the best fabric to either match or complement your outfit.
Femininity, elegance and confidence. You can’t help but walk with your head held high when wearing a wrap. And it’s been shown that if you walk tall with a positive posture, you feel more confident. Which I think can only be a good thing.
Of course, I am also highly aware that head wraps can have cultural and religious meaning; which I am always very respectful of. I keep this in mind when working with my clients, choosing colours appropriate to events that they are attending, for instance.
Head wraps are worn by people all over the world; in many ways and for lots of different reasons; functional, fashionable, cultural or religious. Those of African origin tend to vary in style depending on where they are created.
The Nigerian head wrap is called a gele and has inspired some of my creations for Lupita. Geles are usually quite big and bold with lots of height. I wanted to make sure that I did this head wrap justice with a blend of keeping its integrity but making it more modern. I was pleased that this was recognised and embraced by a lot of people who are familiar with geles; and received some very positive comments about it.”
“Head wraps are a part of who I am, part of my identity as an African women. I’m African first- you see me that’s what you notice first. Head wraps also represent my fierce lioness side. I feel extremely powerful when wearing my head wrap, as a child most women who I admired, including my mother, wore heard wraps.
I don’t wear it for political reasons or solidarity with others, all my life I fought for being my true authentic self and wearing a heard wrap is me at my core, however the head wraps has being a symbol to exhibit my African roots when speaking at a global stage, a symbol of pride.
I love bold colours, such as red , green and egg yolk, I would wear it with my western clothing, love pairing heard warps with my fitted suits, you will find my head wrap colour will match my statement accessory wether it’s a necklace, rig or hand bag.
My biggest style inspiration has always being my mother, as a child I couldn’t wait to grow up so I can dress like her, she always had her own sense of style till today my mother designs a lot of my dresses, we have similar taste, we like simple and unique looks, I guess the head wrap gives me that opportunity to experiment with colours and print.”
By Bwalya Newton
Black hair is political.
From Angela Davis’ ‘fro to Rastafarian dreadlocks; black hairstyles are weighted with the cultural histories and struggles of the liberation of black people.
As a black woman, I’ve come to learn that our hair will often be a bone of contention; something to ogle at and discuss at great length.
Whether braided or wearing a twist-out, my hair is one of the ways in which I can convey my wonderful complexities and pride. It’s also sometimes not that serious.
Commentators asserted to millions of viewers that they thought she probably “smelt of weed.”
This kind of negative has been laboured on to my hair too many times to mention!
In contrast, I often receive warm murmurs of “yes sistrin” or appreciative nods of solidarity at the sight of my natural hair.
Black women have yet to earn the privilege to wear their hair without the need to defend it.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie succinctly puts it; “If Michelle Obama had natural hair, Barack Obama would not have won.”
The black community itself has struggled with its own characterisation of what it deems to be “Good Hair,” as Chris Rock’s movie of the same title explores.
Movements like #teamnatural, bloggers like Natural Belle and websites like Thandie and Kay’s now contain feeds dedicated to the communal celebration and education of a myriad of curl patterns, ethnicities and shades that make up the black community.
Furthermore, black female run businesses have sprung up offering pomades, oils, wigs and weaves; all of them in some way taking ownership of their identities.
The media too is embracing a more authentic depiction of black womanhood. A recent example of this can be found in Shonda Rhimes’ ‘How To Get Away With Murder’, in which we see Viola Davis’ character remove her wig and make-up on screen.
It is imperative that this irreverent playfulness, often overlooked in discussions of black hair, is highlighted.
We have been afforded the wonderful gift of playing with hair in an almost sculptural format and soon the discussions surrounding it will become more abstract and fantastically normal.
Bwalya Newton is a Freelance Writer and DJ currently working on a project exploring the arts and culture of her native Zambia.
Follow her excellent Tumblr’ The Miseducation of Bwalya
Bwalya also narrated a piece that she wrote on Afrofuterism for us.