Today, I want to talk about every Black girl’s most treasured possession (next to her wide-toothed comb, of course, lol): her head tie.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, a “head tie” or “head wrap” is a piece of cloth or a scarf that is used to cover or wrap your hair, also known as a bandanna, kerchief, head scarf, gele, dhuku, duku, doek, or tukwi, depending on who’s wearing it and/or its function. Please keep in mind, different head ties are worn for different purposes; and not all head ties are created equal.
Sarah-Naomi of Sarah Naomi’s Hair Care & Beauty
Lately, head wraps have been becoming increasingly popular, during our present-day “African Renaissance”, as I like to call it, and falling in step with the Natural Hair Movement. Everywhere I look, I see Black women wearing bright beautifully patterned African head coverings. But the head tie is nothing new to Black culture…
A little bit of history…
Portrait of a Haitian Woman by François Beaucourt, 1786 (Public Domain)
The head-tie or bandanna was a piece of cloth that female slaves wore to shield their heads from the heat of the sun, absorb sweat, keep their hair clean and their braided styles intact, and to “train” the growth of their hair.
Though head-ties are now considered a traditional African clothing item, when the Europeans explorers first arrived in Africa, people actually wore their hair uncovered. One historian believes that the practice of wearing head-ties may have come from the expectation of women to cover their heads for mass in the New World and in the West African colonial settlements.
For Black slave women, head coverings were used to hide their hair when it was messy because untidy hair was considered disgraceful for women, according to West African traditions. Given the importance of hair in traditional African cultures, not being able to take care of and braid their hair like they used to in Africa was particularly humiliating for slave women, so they used their head ties to cover their shame.
Head ties thus helped female slaves feel a bit better about their appearance, and by the mid-1800s, almost all slave women wore them. Since then, the practice of wearing head ties has been passed down through the generations, and Black women still use them today to cover their hair for various reasons.
My head tie, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
When I want to keep my hair clean, I wrap it up!
2016 Color Me Rad 5K, Toronto
As for me, I started thinking a lot about my head tie particularly this past weekend as I was getting ready to do the Color Me Rad 5K. The night before the 5K, while most people were probably worrying about whether or not they should bring their own water bottle, or if they should run with a backpack, I was at Walmart trying to figure out what I was going to buy to tie my head.
Why? Because I just wasn’t ready to have to contend with trying to get that coloured powder out of my hair afterwards. After all, I had no idea what they put in that stuff, and I didn’t want it all up in my ‘fro (mind you, it wasn’t til afterwards that I thought, hey, whatever’s in the powder is now on my skin and in my lungs, for that matter; but that’s another story, lol). So, I wandered up and down the aisles trying to find a white bandanna, or a cheap pashmina, and even considered just using one my husband’s white t-shirts. I just needed something to cover my head!
I ended up settling on this baseball cap (pictured above), which did its job well enough; but I do know nothing would’ve given me the same coverage as just the right head tie! The sort of head tie I’m talking about is the one whose only purpose is to keep my hair from getting dirty or in the way.
When I’m feeling like a queen, I wrap it up!
As I mentioned earlier, with this “African Renaissance” that has been taking place, there’s been a renewed interest and celebration of all things African. Alongside the Natural Hair and Black Lives Matter Movements, people of the African Diaspora have been retracing and re-appropriating many aspects of our cultural roots, with pride; and, as a result, the head wrap, as a fashion accessory, is really starting to make a comeback, for members of the diasporic community.
Interestingly enough, earlier this year, in Durham, North Carolina, a group of girls at The School for Creative Studies were asked by a school administrator to remove the African geles they were wearing for Black History Month because their school district does not permit students to wear head gear except for religious or medical reasons. I don’t know about the ins and outs of the school’s dress code policy, but I do know that wearing a head wrap is often more than a mere fashion statement: it’s a tribute to our African ancestry.
For me, these sort of fancy head wraps always remind me of my Auntie, who’s been wearing them ever since I could remember; she’s always embraced Afrocentric fashion. And when we were younger, she used to dress my sister, cousins and me in West African attire, complete with our head wraps; thanks to her, we grew up being the beautiful African princesses she knew we were.
And now, as an adult, I know that whenever I wear a head wrap, I feel like a queen: it’s like wearing my own African crown.
When I want my hair to “stay good”, I wrap it up!
Whenever I’ve had my hair done, I know there’s no way to keep my hairstyle intact and long-lasting like tying it down with a nice silky head tie- in this case, a head scarf- especially since my hair is natural. This sort of head tie is typically worn at nighttime to keep the hairstyle from being disturbed by tossing and turning. This sort of head tie is also worn to protect the hair itself from pillowcases, which can dry out and break textured hair. And sometimes if an occasion is extra special, this sort of head tie might be worn in public, but only to make sure that all flyaways and frizzies are held down until the last possible moment, so the style looks perfect upon its unveiling!
This particular function of the head tie is one that is not readily understood, and understandably so. I remember when I was getting ready for my bff’s wedding, my fellow bridesmaids (who were of Korean descent) asked me if I was planning on wearing my head tie (pictured above) for the actual wedding. I had to explain to them that, even though this scarf matched the colour of our dresses, I was only wearing the head tie to keep my braided style neat. And, sometimes, that’s all that the head tie is there for!
Wrap Queens: Me and Monique London of London Ivy Products
When I don’t know what to do, I wrap it up!
Last, but not least, my head tie saves my life when I have no idea (or time) to do anything with my hair!
As a naturalista, there are times when I just don’t have the time (nor the desire) to do a twist-out, get my hair braided, or pick it out into a ‘fro; so, on the head tie goes! This sort of head tie can come in handy, for instance, on wash day, when you’ve combed out your hair, but haven’t had time to style it (as was the case for me in the picture above, a couple of days ago, when I ran into Monique London of London Ivy Products, who was also sporting her pretty head wrap!); or any other day, for that matter, when you may be having a bad hair day, or are just not in the mood!
So, those are the reasons why I love my head tie! If I’ve inspired you to wear one yourself, check out this link to learn how to tie one: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/02/how-to-headwrap-ways-to-tie_n_7705824.html
And if you’re looking to purchase your own African print wraps, check out London Ivy Products: http://londonivyproducts.com/collections/headwraps
Byrd, Ayana D. and Lori L. Tharps. Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001, pp. 4, 13.
Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African-American Women. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996, p. 25.
White, Shane and Graham White, Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998, pp. 58, 59, 60.
Wikipedia, “Head Tie”, 2016.
Do you love your head tie as much as I do? How and when do you wear yours?