The Headwrap: A History

Saturday, March 8, 2014

I like many have to say that the headwrap or turban is a main stay for my overall look. I wear a wrap more often then not, because they look great and they serve a function (protecting my hair)

It's hard to say who was the first person (or persons) to think about covering the hair with fabric, though I assume that this can be dated back centuries. As the main function of any head covering is protection, the head wrap is popular in hotter climates because it protects against the rays of the sun.
However covering the hair can be for symbolic or religious reason.

Head wraps or Turbans have an interesting history in black culture Helen Bradley Griebel explains the significance in African American history;

"THE AFRICAN AMERICAN headwrap holds a distinctive position in the history of American dress both for its longevity and for its potent signification's. It endured the travail of slavery and never passed out of fashion. The headwrap represents far more than a piece of fabric wound around the head.
This distinct cloth head covering has been called variously "head rag," "head-
tie," "head handkerchief," "turban," or "headwrap." I use the latter term here. The headwrap usually completely covers the hair, being held in place by tying the ends into knots close to the skull. As a form of apparel in the United States, the headwrap has been exclusive to women of African descent.
The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa, and serves similar functions for both African and African American women. In style, the African American woman's headwrap exhibits the features of sub-Saharan aesthetics and worldview. In the United States, however, the headwrap acquired a paradox of meaning not customary on the ancestral continent. During slavery, white overlords imposed its wear as a badge of enslavement. Later it evolved into the stereotype that whites held of the "Black Mammy" servant. The enslaved and their descendants, however, have regarded the headwrap as a helmet of courage that evoked an image of true homeland-be that ancient Africa or the newer homeland, America. The simple head rag worn by millions of enslaved women and their descendants has served as a uniform of communal identity; but at its most elaborate, the African American woman's headwrap has functioned as a "uniform of rebellion" signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition."

Turbans and head wraps date back further when we look at African Culture;

"Head wraps have served as a head cover for Africans, mostly women, since at least the early 1700s. According to Danya London Fashions For All, a group of African slave women appear in a 1707 painting that was created by Dirk Valkenburg, a Danish painter, that depicted them wearing head wraps that appeared high on the forehead and above the ears. However, it is believed that African cultures used head wraps before the days of slavery so that men could show off their wealth and the level of their social status and so that women could prove that they were prosperous and spiritual."

Slave Dance by Dirk Valkenburg

I can be said that west African women are partly responsibly for the popularity of the head wrap as a fashion item, using elaborate fabrics and style to tie the wraps. And though for many some symbolism and meaning is attached anyone who has attended a Yoruba wedding know it's about the style and fashion for many women.


There are many facets to the headwrap or turban, and many reason for wearing one that can be debated back and forth.  The headwrap is having a resurgence (not just for women of colour) as a fashion item that hasn't been seen since the 1940's. Turbans  reached the hight of popularity during the second world war, again it was born out of functionality, women were working during the war some for the first time. wearing a head wrap kept hair away from the face as well as adding much needed flare to rationed clothing and uniforms. Turbans were also a cheap option, many women used off cuts of fabric. Like many things this was appropriated by high fashion, and filtered down to the middle classes. 

Today we see another rise in the turban and headwrap popularity, some say this is due to the economic down turn, not as many trips to the salon result in a need for functional, fashionable attire. 

And again we see the trend appropriated by high fashion, however we also see a rise in black women selling beautiful authentic fabrics to the masses. One of my favourites is Project Tribe  the brainchild of Bazaar and Luna who have set up an etsy shop filled with beautiful prints along side a thought provoking dialogue shop the wraps

With the rise of the Natural Hair community the headwrap is taking pride of place as a hair staple, that is so much more than just tying your hair down at night. The head wrap is a fashionable adornment with a rich history.

1940's Fashion: A Definitive Sourcebook
The African American Woman's Headwrap: Unwinding the Symbols
By: Helen Bradley Griebel

There was a lot more information on this topic, however I had to edit this post down quite a bit to make it more readable so excuse the gaps in information
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