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WRAPPED... in Culture


"WRAPPED" is a fashion installation celebrating Black culture and African ancestry hosted by the Culture Matters Foundation. 

This project is a two-part initiative which includes designs from various Hamilton designers including:



A static visual display which focusses on one aspect of Black fashion; Headwraps - and showcases the evolution of headwraps in the Black community. These headwraps will be displayed at the Hamilton Convention Centre, and Hamilton City Hall.


The interactive component of the project involves a live tutorial on how to style and wear headwraps. This segment will occur in person at the 2023 Hamilton Black History Month Launch.




History of Headwraps

Head Wraps: A Historical Perspective

Head wraps have a rich cultural history originating in Sub Saharan Africa. They are traditional attire and are created from a rectangular piece of fabric that is wrapped from the back of the head and tied or tucked on the top of the head, exposing and enhancing the face. They have different names in different cultures, for instance to the Yoruba people in Nigeria, their artfully folded wraps are geles, while Ghanaian women refer to their wraps dukus, and South African and Namibian women often use the Afrikaans word doek. In some cultures, Headwraps are traditionally worn by married women, or as a sign of respect to their fathers and husbands, as well signifying Black strength and womanhood.

More than just fashion statements, they have cultural and spiritual significance in Black Women’s history. They are also one of the most popular, statement-making hair accessories that adorns the heads of Black Women worldwide. Headwraps not only provide style but had various meanings and uses. The styles and artistry were determined by the length of fabric and colours used, as well as the use within cultural norms. Patterns and colours are significant within African cultures and could be varied due to the dyeing of fabrics. For instance, in many African communities, red was often symbolic of strength and courage, as well as associated with resistance and religious dress. Among the Yoruba, during Gelede performances, women wore an array of brightly coloured head wraps in various ways. The way the fabric was tied and how it
was styled on the head conveyed specific messages or meanings such as anger, sadness, marital status, status, occupation, religious ceremonies, sensuality, festivals and resistance movements. Further, personal style and each individual creativity allowed for variation in each person's headwraps. For women carrying goods on their heads, a piece of cloth or dried banana leaves would be coiled and shaped into a doughnut, called a coota, and placed on top of the headwrap to assist with balancing loads.

At one point in history, headwraps were turned from being symbols of luxury and
respect to symbols of oppression, when Black Women were enslaved and forced to wear them as symbols of subservience in the mid-1700ss. In South Carolina, British colonists passed a law in 1735 which mandated that Black women were only allowed to wear specific types of clothing. They were not permitted to wear any kind of decorated or embellished clothing, which included festive headwraps. In 1784 the then Louisiana Governor-, Esteban Rodriguez Miró, passed the "Tignon Law”, that required Black women to wear their hair bound in a kerchief or “tignon”. What began as a fashion statement of opulence became a symbol of oppression. Stereotypical images of turbaned “Black Mammy” such as Aunt Jemima, and imposed dress codes upon enslaved and mulatto women, which required them to cover their heads to be able to differentiate themselves from white women did little to help. By the 19th century, Black Women began to abandon head wraps all together due to its association with slavery and servitude.

Head wraps were also defiantly used as a central accessory of the Black Power uniform of rebellion in the 1970s. The headwrap, like the Afro, embraced a style once used to shame people of African descent with defiance. Black is beautiful, the saying went, and kente cloth headwraps were Afrocentric aesthetic celebration. They were made popular again in the 1990s as the natural hair movement evolved, and many Black Women found influence in not only wearing their natural hair, but also honoring their roots by wearing head wraps. Artists like Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and India Arie popularized colorful and towering wraps for a new generation. Just as the neo-soul genre repackaged black music styles like jazz, hip-hop and R and B, these artists'  head coverings paid tribute to a long, rich history of black hair culture. While the style was new and unfamiliar to many outside the African diaspora, headwraps quickly entered the mainstream.

Today, headwraps have come full circle and are once again more than fashion
statements, but also symbols of cultural significance and pride in the Black community. Many women are returning to them as a fashionable protective style option.  Despite the negative experiences of the colonial era, Black women were able to reclaim and rewrite the story by sporting headwraps as a powerful symbol of self love. As black women, women of color, have always struggled with how they can make it appropriate and safe for the society, but with the headwrap, women are really embracing the Africanness within them. Just like the evolution of iconic hairstyles, the headwraps made their way to be a fashion statement and symbol of self love. Today, re-incorporating the African headwrap into one’s everyday dress is a means of commemorating, embracing and revitalizing African culture.

Prepared by: Michelle Shivbarran & Chantal Gray
Bradley et al, 2004
Apostol and Thompson, 2020
Buckridge, 2004
Strubel, 2012