Millennium Post

Giving head the right way

For many centuries Africans struggled to retain their unique traditions, languages and cultures. This was achieved despite wave after wave of outside influence and domination by Arabs and Europeans. One of the features that has remained virtually intact from generation to generation is clothes and accoutrements. From north to south, west to east, Africans wear head scarves, head ties and other forms of headdress as an expression of their culture, religious and fashion preferences. Muslim women drape their heads in hijaabs, some decorated with stunningly colourful beads and designs, orthodox Christian women in Ethiopia and Eritrea cover their heads as well in accordance with their religious beliefs. The exact origins of headgear are unknown and are worn in different countries for different reasons.

Headgear can denote religion, nationality, ethnicity, social status, rank, profession and they can also be worn purely for fashion. Yet Africans are not the only ones for whom headdresses are important. Across the world, people have historically used headdresses of some form or another. Native Americans chiefs who wore dramatic feather war bonnets or Sikh men and women wrap their heads in turbans. Indonesians believe that the head is the entry point for the soul and, as such, it must be covered.

Head wraps have always been an ornament on women's heads. It was considered to be symbol of modesty at one time, hiding the hair and topping off the outfit. It was the finishing touch and a woman would not leave the house without one. Head wraps have been used as a status symbol as well as a fashion statement for many years. Head wraps in Africa are known by different names. In Ghana and South Africa it is called ‘Duku’, in Zimbabwe it is called ‘Dhuku’, in Botswana it is called ‘Tukwi’ and in Nigeria it is called ‘Gele’.

Gele is a Yoruba word for a female head wrap. It is an elaborate head tie that has great cultural and historical significance to the Yorubas of Nigeria and indeed to many other African communities. ‘Taller the Better’ is often the motto when it comes to tie a Gele. The process of tying the Gele is a real work out for the arms; to bend, twist, tie the Gele repeatedly until one gets it right, battling in front of the mirror with the stiff and crispy fabric. When tied well, it is seen as a crown. African head ties and head wraps are identified by their colourful fabrics and distinctive designs. Headdresses often express the cultural significance of African fashion. In many African societies the choice of colours and fabrics is outstanding and has special significance to the wearer. Part of the charm of the head tie comes down to the material.

Popular African textiles for a head tie are Khanga cloth, Kent cloth, Vlisco Hollendais Wax, Aso Eke fabric, Adire from the Yoruba people, Mud cloth from the Nambara tribe, Kitenge from Kenya and eastern Africa. Geles come in different shapes and sizes. The most popular fabric among Nigerian women is a metallic fabric made from jacquard; its best to use a heavy fabric like cotton or silk to get a perfect style.

Trends come and go but there are still things that individuals hold on to even though that fashion trend is dead and gone. Gele has been increasing in popularity over the years. The creativity and determination of stylists like June Ambrose, Segun Gele, Solange Knowles and the list goes on who is helping  put Africa’s Geles on the fashion map. Geles or head ties have also featured prominently on the fashion catwalks of the world. From late Yves Saint Laurent to Christian Lacroix, head scarves have played a role in high fashion. From west to east, Geles were donned by celebrities for major magazine photo-shoots, whether by Rihanna or Beyonce. As African cultures’ influence world fashion, people wear headscarves and head ties which will continue to grace the runways. From the use of Geles on high fashion models to the use of traditional African fabrics like those used in Marc by Mack Jacobs spring summer 2009, fashion label MOMO, Luisa Beccaria, Max Mara, Dolce & Gabbana and many more, geles are accessories one cannot seem to do without.  

These designers have made history. Their collections have been showed at the world's most famous fashion capitals including New York, Milan, London and Paris fashion weeks. Headdresses seem more for the younger generations and can be worn for any reason, from looking fashionable to just simply following the trend. Lots of young girls flaunt their head wraps with some of their hair showing. They are easy to wear and can be worn with just about anything as long as one has the right attitude to pull it off.

No matter the fashion trends, headscarves and head wraps will remain a mainstay for African women and others the world over. Geles have quickly become the fashion staple thanks to the younger generation and their penchant for trying different styles. African women still wear Geles and they look lovely. A Nigerian woman would not think of going to a formal event without Gele in her hair. Neither would you if you gave it a shot.

Conceived by Kalyan Mukherjee, Consulting Editor, Africa
Research by Aman Ramrakha
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