A Complicated and Beautiful Record of How Modern Headwraps Came to Be
Headwrap History5 mins

A Complicated and Beautiful Record of How Modern Headwraps Came to Be

Words: BIANCA CRUZ

Head wrapping is ancient, with the earliest known record of headwraps dating back to the 13th century in what would now be Northern Iraq. Head coverings would only be worn by aristocratic women and were strictly forbidden to be worn by women of lower status. Fast forward to 18th century Louisiana where women of color were forced to cover their hair in order to signify their lower social status and separate them from White women.

Journalist Liana Aghajanian describes the complicated nature of headwraps and their mixed usage––guised with ulterior motives or used as acts of resilience, it may feel arduous to many to explain why they wear headwraps or their cultural significance:

“The headscarf has been banned, made mandatory, hailed as a symbol of religious virtue, accepted as a means of controlling female sexuality, and politicized by governments and colonizers across the world. Manipulated and misinterpreted, it is seen as both a sign of liberation and imprisonment, of progress and regression. It’s a source of friction both outside and inside the communities that wear it.”

Brought by kidnapped Africans through the Atlantic Slave Trade, the United States and its surrounding countries have a deeply problematic history with headwraps. Enslaved people in the Americas would oftentime wear headwraps on plantations to protect themselves from the sun, sweat, and lice while working. Upon the progression of freedom, legislation such as the tignon law also known as the “Edict of Good Government” were enacted against Black and mixed women as mentioned earlier. However, women used the law to their advantage, decorating their wraps with feathers and jewels––making a statement of resilience.

Celia Cruz with Head Wrap

Celia Cruz with Head Wrap

Frida Kahlo in New York, by Nickolas Muray, 1939. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.

Frida Kahlo in New York, by Nickolas Muray, 1939. © Nickolas Muray Photo Archives.

Even upon freedom, societal pressure to feel acceptance and to adhere to eurocentric beauty standards bled into their own autonomy––therefore headwraps were discarded and only used at home in fear of being associated with enslavement. However, as the civil rights movement gained traction in the United States, so did natural hair and ultimately headwraps. Some parts of the Americas such as Cuba and Jamaica never ceased the usage of headwraps. They became synonymous with religious attire and certain styles and even became a symbol of marital status. Iconic cultural figures such as Celia Cruz and Frida Kahlo who wore traditional Mexican head wraps celebrated the custom and still hold enormous cultural significance or “tumbao” as Celia would say! 

The same can be seen throughout religious groups and cultures around the world. In early Christianity and Judaism, hair coverings were required of married women. Some Orthodox Jewish still practice this tradition till this day wearing hats, scarves such as the “tichel”, or a wig called a “sheitel”. With its origins stemming from the Hebrew Bible, head coverings were often associated with faithfulness––and although its roots are within the religious text, the practice of head coverings vary greatly from Jewish couples covering their heads during their wedding ceremony to mark the change in status from unmarried to married, to women only wearing head coverings only during religious services or prayer, to never covering their hair at all. Likewise, Jewish men have their own religiously-tied traditions of head coverings such as the “Kippah” or a “Tallit”.  

The Virgin in Prayer

Sassoferrato (1609—1685). The Virgin in Prayer, ca. 1640—50. Oil on canvas 73 x 57.7 cm. The National Gallery, bequeathed by Richard Simmons, 1846.

Nuns

Independent / (Getty Images)

In Christianity, head covering is often practiced in non-secular spaces––with one of the most important religious symbols, the Virgin Mary depicted with her hair covered. Many Eastern Christian churches require women to cover their heads upon entering. 1 Corinthians 11:5 indicates that an unveiled woman is a disgrace to God. Although this isn’t widely practiced in the Christian church, it can still be seen in Catholicism with the wearing of “Habits” in some convents. In many afro-centric communities you may see many of the women wearing elaborate and colorful headwraps. In parts of West Africa the “Gele” is an ancient hair-wrapping tradition which signifies class, marital status (remember Jamaica?) and heritage––often telling a story of the wearer. Elaborate geles are a large part of Nigeria’s wedding culture but less labor-intensive styles can be worn day-to-day. 

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., center, at the Capitol this week.(Andrew Harnik / AP)

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., center, in the Capitol. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

Although greatly misunderstood, Islamic head covering practices vary greatly and often are associated with political pressure rather than choice in Western societies. Head coverings are indeed a choice and throughout recent and ancient history, the consistency of the practice has waxed and waned. Typically head coverings are worn, much like in Christianity and Judaism as a symbol of faith, and in some instances, modesty. Women must choose to wear their head covering but are often pressured by certain societies to do so. Much like how some communities in the West place societal pressure on women to practice modesty but are given the illusion of choice. Islam is not a monolith––displaying a wide variety of different types of head coverings from the “Hijab”, to the “Shayla” from the “Khimar” to the “Niqab”. In a post-9/11 world, the decision to wear a hijab has doubled in pressure––with outright displays of discrimination and attempts to ban the hijab (ahem France). Islamophobia is ingrained in Western societies, however it is highly encouraged to learn about Islam in order to halt the cycle of hatred. 

By BGM Riding Association - I took this picture of MPP Singh at his annual community BBQ in 2014, taking place at Wildwood Park in Malton, Ontario.Previously published: Published on Jagmeet Singh's Facebook., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71839158

By BGM Riding Association - I took this picture of MPP Singh at his annual community BBQ in 2014, taking place at Wildwood Park in Malton, Ontario.Previously published: Published on Jagmeet Singh's Facebook., CC BY-SA 3.0.

Many confuse the Sikh (pronounced “sic”) religion for Islam when they are in no way related. Sikhism is a Dharmic religion founded in the Punjab region of the Indian subcontinent. The dastār was introduced in the 12th century and was exclusively worn by wealthy and elite men, however, as the dastār became more widespread among its followers, it soon became a symbol of equality for both men and women. 

Today, head wraps still hold a complicated history but are becoming a radicalized choice and reclamation for many communities. At The Wrap Life, we encourage wrappers of any and all genders, races, and religious backgrounds to explore their ancestral roots and what it means to wear a head wrap.  

WORKS CITED

About the author

Bianca Cruz, wearing our Pleated Head Wrap in Coco

Bianca Cruz is a Wrap Life model and editorial assistant at Clarkson Potter. She graduated from Hunter College in New York City with a bachelor’s degree in English Language Arts with a minor in German. Following her internship at Oxford University Press, Bianca attended the Columbia Publishing Course and now attends the Institute of Culinary Education where she is currently pursuing her dreams of becoming a Chef.

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