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African Headwraps: A Powerful Accessory

Feb 26, 2021 08:00AM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho

The headwrap, usually styled with traditional African prints from various African tribes, is now a celebrated accessory in the fashion industry. It’s a piece of cloth tied around the head in an intricate style, and can be used on those days where you’re too lazy to style your hair. However it can also be worn in elaborate designs for special occasions.

The African headwrap is known by different names in different regions on the continent. In South Africa it’s called a doek, in Zimbabwe it is a dhuku, and a tuku in Botswana. It’s called a gele in Nigeria, and in Zambia it is known as a chitambala. Traditionally, the styles of wraps are often correlated with age, status, and lineage. Despite the dispersal of African communities due to the slave trade, emancipation, and globalization, this accessory has stood the test of time and continues to be a powerful statement.

During slavery in the United States, the headwrap served functional purposes like protecting Black women's scalps from the sun, sweat, grime, and lice. It also became a symbol of slavery and servants when the Negro Act was passed in 1735, which stipulated what Black people were allowed to wear. Enslaved Black women also used it in other creative ways. In parts of Central America, such as Suriname, Black women used the folds in their headscarves to communicate coded messages to one another.

Additionally, during the slavery era, a white headwrap became associated with the depiction of Black ladies as ‘mammies’, whose sole purpose was to look after the children and homes of White America. In South Africa, Black women wear headwraps as a sign that they are engaged, married, or bereaved. In many cultures of South Africa, a woman wears a headwrap in the presence of her in-laws as a sign of respect.

During the 1970s, headwraps, like the afro, became a central accessory of the Black Power uniform of rebellion. In the 1990s and 2000s, artists like Erykah Badu and India Arie popularized colorful and towering headwraps. Headwraps were also often associated with the neo-soul music genre.

The natural hair movement has brought headwraps back into popularity, with many YouTubers doing headwrap tutorial videos. There are a number of ways that one can tie a headwrap, making it versatile enough to fit the style and fit one is going for.



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 Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies.  

She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content.