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.”
Posted by Kay
Whilst catching up with online news a week ago, I happened to glance upon a filmed interview, based on misinterpretations of FGM that was performed (and written, so I later found out) with a total poker face by Leyla Hussein. The satire (with stand up comedian Bridget Christie watch it here) was based on actual questions Leyla has been asked. Whether it was her satirical envelope-pushing or her headscarf’s attitude, I knew immediately she had to be on our site. One tweet later we were in touch and met in person last Friday when she came over to the HQ to be photographed by Lily Bertrand-Webb. In walked a warm, generous woman who was as sharp as she was funny, and full of the kind of courage that inspires greatly and shifts mindsets.
A trained Psychologist, Somalian-born Leyla is a leading campaigner on FGM and gender rights, successfully lobbying the government with her E-Petition ‘Stop FGM in the UK Now‘ that triggered a much-needed debate in Parliament.
She was included in the BBC 100 women list of 2013 and recently voted 6th in the Woman’s Hour 2014 Power List. Her many awards include Cosmopolitan Ultimate Campaigner Women of the Year Award 2010, True Honour Award 2012 “by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights organisation for recognising her work on preventing honour based violence, protecting victims/survivors and bringing perpetrators to justice.
She co-founded Daughters Of Eve who are working to protect girls and young women at risk from FGM and in 2013, started the only counselling service for FGM survivors in the UK, the Dahlia Project. There are 60,000 woman a year in the UK alone who get cut and contary to popular belief, it is not a part of any religion, it is a cultural practice adopted by many different faiths. Leyla’s powerful documentary ‘The Cruel Cut‘ on FGM for Channel 4 in the UK was nominated for a Bafta in 2014, The Amnesty Media Awards 2014 and Best Onscreen Talent category for the CDN Awards 2014. Leyla also blogs for the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan magazine and The Guardian.
2. The first time I wore make-up and threaded my eyebrows was the age of 18 because my mother wouldn’t allow me to wear make-up, she told me it would ruin my skin by the time I was 25. I also wasn’t confident at all, I was extremely shy and spent a lot of time in the library and hid away.
When I feel confident within myself by attending therapy sessions every six months. I call it, “ My inner make-over sessions“ – no make-up and comfy pjs always help. However, I totally enjoy getting ready for an event where I get the chance to dress up in my traditional African garments and feel confident and beautiful.
This may sound very cliché but my 12 year old daughter is very beautiful from the inside and out, she carries a confidence I wish I had at her age, she still has her own struggles and we have an open dialogue about what beauty is. We are now in an era where young girls are pressured to look a certain way and it’s my job as a parent to teach my daughter that images are airbrushed, and about the use of hairpieces and make-up. I go as far as Googling the natural looks of her favourite pop stars like Beyoncé and Disney stars.
My mother had a routine where she waited for my dad to go to work and then applied a daily facemask made of natural herbs and put rollers in her hair. An hour before my dad would return she would have a shower and remove the facemask and rollers, and wear a very pretty dress. My dad always came home to a woman who was always immaculate, however my mother has always told me, “You need to look good for yourself first, others enjoying it is a bonus”. I still follow that rule. My mother’s favourite Somali saying is, “It’s not about what you wear, it’s about who is wearing it.”
I rarely wear make-up but when I do it’s a total delight.
My dad idolised my mother, he would refer to her as the most beautiful person he had ever laid eyes on and would tell me he couldn’t believe his luck that she married him. He sadly passed away in 2006, now my siblings and I always remind her of her beauty. She is 60 and not a wrinkle in sight.
I would like to see more diversity, women from different backgrounds, women who look like me, and girls that my daughter can identify with. Also, I would like to see images of women in their natural state.
I’m the biggest crier I know, I cry when I receive a letter from individuals who have never met me and remind me of the importance of my work, especially emails from FGM survivors who encourage me on a daily basis, their support means so much to me but it also means I’m left with Panda eyes!
I use Marjaan’s, a handmade, organic skin care line created by Firdos Ali. I love Baroque, a Frankincense & Rose face balm for dry skin. I use it to moisturise and remove my make-up. My skin has never felt better. Now that I do a lot of speaking engagements I will wear make-up and get home extremely late. Too tired to sit in front of a mirror and remove my make-up, I massage Baroque into my face and leave it on for 5 minutes then wash off with warm water. I don’t need to moisture after. I love it and don’t go anywhere without it.
See Leyla’s Channel 4 Doc ‘The Cruel Cut’ here
Read more about FGM via Leyla’s blog at The Huffington Post
Counselling for survivors of FGM can be found here at the Dahlia Project.
For advice, help and information on what can be done about FGM see the Daughters Of Eve site
Follow Leyla on twitter
Leyla was photographed exclusively for ThandieKay by Lily Bertrand-Webb