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by john tchoudi June 21, 2018

Born into slavery, reclaimed by African women, the headwrap is now a celebrated in the African fashion industry to express  style and identity.

A beautiful and symbolic expression of identity and style, the traditional African headwrap is so much more than a fabric to cover the head. The gloriously woven head wraps are an undeniable statement of African culture and celebration, but that has not always been the case; before becoming an iconic fashion statement, they were associated with slavery and colonialism.

African headwraps as we know and love them today have descended from the cloths worn by the women of sub-Saharan Africa and ancient Egypt. Furthermore, their long colourful history is both intriguing and inspiring, resulting in a wonderful representation of the culture and heritage of the African continent.

A Royal Beginning

Originating from sub-Saharan Africa, these headwraps were initially worn by women during the early 1700s and often indicated their age, marital status and prosperity. Many queens from various areas adorned the traditional headwear, including Nubian queens who chose elaborate and rich fabrics woven with exotic and beautiful flowers.

Nigerian queens often opted for lighter and finer materials for special occasions, and Egyptian royalty would rock stunning, elaborate headdresses. Although regularly sported by powerful and inspirational royal ladies across the continent, African headwraps have been a consistent feature in the daily lives of many black women for hundreds of years.

Pretty Yet Practical

As well as being exquisite accessories, headwraps have always been used for practical reasons by many women in Africa and beyond. Traditionally, African ladies would wear headwraps to protect their hair and heads from the strong sun and keep cool in the hot weather.

Not only were they a practical way of dealing with the harsh weather, but headwraps also represented a woman’s spirituality, wealth and social status within a community; it could indicate if a woman was a married young woman, a widow or a grandmother simply from its style, colour and design.

A Stark Difference Across the Pond

The unique piece of clothing developed a very different meaning and statement in the United States and across Europe, where it soon became a symbol of slavery and servants. In 1735, the Negro Act was passed, which provided stipulations on what black people were allowed to wear. The act outlawed everything more extravagant than “Negro cloth, duffels, kerseys, osnabrigs, blue linen, check linen of coarse garlix, or calicoes, checked cottons or Scotch plaids.”

At a similar time in the Spanish colony in Louisiana, the “Edict of Good Government” was passed which stated that all black woman must wear “their hair bound in a kerchief” or a “tignon.”. Black ladies were also forbidden from wearing the same jewellery as women of European descent.

There was also a concern that a growing number of European men were finding biracial women more appealing, which was yet another reason for enforcing the wearing of headwraps. It was an attempt to discourage slave masters from pursuing women that were deemed to be beneath them.

Many white women also insisted on headwraps being worn by their slaves to avoid any confusion over who was the mistress. This resulted in enslaved black women being forced to wear headwraps as uniform, making them a symbol of slavery and inferior status in European areas.

The Dress Code of Slavery

As the white society had the power to control the dress code of the black population, it soon led to the headwrap becoming associated with the depiction of black ladies as ‘mammies’. These were enslaved women catering to the needs of white masters and mistresses, becoming a stereotype in their own right. The mammies were considered sassy yet motherly. The sole purpose was to look after the children and homes of white America.

Luckily, these strong-minded black women were not prepared to let the dress code of their African descendants mark their inferior status in a word of white supremacy, and they discovered their own unique ways to express themselves within the tight laws and controls of their masters.

Function or Fashion?

The start of the 20th century saw the introduction of the first chemical relaxers designed to straighten and grow black hair. While the method was highly criticised for encouraging European beauty standards, it became popular among African-American women and led to the headwrap taking on a much more functional use. Headwraps were used to protect chemically treated hair from sweat, dirt and water which could affect how well the chemicals worked and hinder the hair growth.

Similar headwraps soon became popular among black men as well, with items such as the durag used to maintain popular hairstyles including the conk. The durag was a type of pressing cap that helped to protect chemically treated hair that was fashionably manipulated into soft waves.

The Black Power movement in the sixties and seventies saw a decline in chemically processed hair but did not stop the popularity of the headwrap as a fashion statement among black women.

A Proud Symbol

It wasn’t long before these headwraps that were used to reinforce white superiority and slavery among black women evolved into a proud symbol of identity and defiance. An inspirational piece of clothing that allowed black women to reclaim their own identity and express themselves through innovative fashion.

The humble headwrap gave these black women an outlet to be themselves and embrace their culture in a world that was trying so hard to suppress them and hold them down.

Fast forward to the modern world and the headwrap has not lost its relevance despite becoming a trendy fashion accessory. Headwraps still represent the same cultural significance that they have done in the past and provide a powerful symbol of both freedom and open expression even today.

Managing to shake the connotations of oppression and submission, headwraps are an eccentric and stunning piece of African-American fashion to be enjoyed and appreciated by all cultures. Headwraps have become a proud and powerful symbol of identity, as well as a beautiful and striking nod to the history behind African fashion as we know and love today.

john tchoudi
john tchoudi


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