Headwrap: A Cultural Symbol

by Krystle DeSantos

In 2015, photographer Lauren Fletcher created a visual editorial, Head Dress. The  images were a powerful exploration of an age-old African aesthetic that, over centuries, has become embedded in the cultural identities of Black women around the world. Bold, beautiful swaths of fabric were wrapped and shaped as eye-catching accessories for Fletcher’s series of portraits. The headwrap, or head dress as Fletcher refers to them in her editorial, is finding its way into more and more editorials and can even be spotted on today’s runways as a unique expression of Black identity and a powerful symbol of culture.

Like many cultural artifacts from the African continent, the custom of wearing headwraps arrived in the Americas as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the colonies the headwrap was originally worn by enslaved Africans of both genders, but over time the hair accessory became exclusive to women. To the slave owners who enforced the practice, headwraps signified subservience and destitution. Scholarly accounts find that during these times, “in certain areas of the South, legislation appeared that required black women to wear their hair bound up in this manner.” The headwrap was viewed as a sign of enslavement and a way to diminish the beauty and pride of culture in Black women. However these women often used headwraps to cover their hair for practical purposes, as well as a form of resistance. The wraps provided useful protection when working in harsh conditions, while at the same time, unique methods of styling the wrap was used as a way to signify individuality and community – the very antithesis of what slave owners intended by demanding its wear. In Africa as well as the Diaspora, women also adorned their hair and used headwraps in various styles embodying the same concept of uniqueness and collective.

For women of the African Diaspora today, headwraps appear everywhere – in modern fashion, they are worn by many of our favorite celebrities and street style icons, yet they are just as common among ladies gathering for brunch or spending a day at home. The often colorful and bold accessory is a versatile piece that can be styled and worn in many different ways. Some style their headwrap like a pretty present, securing it with a variety of ostentatious knots and bows. Others prefer to rock a more minimal style by tucking the ends of the fabric in. There are even some who still wrap it turban-style, reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Regardless of wrapping style, this accessory is beautiful, frames the face and immediately captures attention.

Throughout the years, iconic women such as Nina Simone, Lena Horne and Eartha Kitt wore headwraps or turbans as a continual part of their look. Today, variations of the style can be spotted on the likes of celebrities such as Alicia Keys, Tracee Ellis Ross, Beyoncé, Lupita Nyong’o, Solange Knowles and Yara Shahidi to name a few. These women are known for their talent, style, activism and positive impact on Black culture. Their use of the headwrap transcends fashion, placing them in conversation with the history and evolution of a garment that has had many lives and meanings and continues to embody the concurrent notions of individuality and communal pride that are at the heart of so much of Diaspora culture.

With so many years of history behind them, headwraps are far more than a fashion trend. Like jeans or a wrap dress, they are an enduring part of the style landscape, and more importantly, a symbol of a tradition and a people who both remain unbroken to this day. With so much room for customization, headwraps are surely a statement piece. And as they become more prevalent in fashion and editorials like the one by Fletcher, we should find value in understanding this accessory’s notable place in the history of Diaspora culture and style.


Lauren Fletcher