Why I Started Wearing Head Wraps

Once you master the technique, every outfit becomes more interesting. Tying a wrap becomes an everyday celebration of Blackness.

Seven years ago, at my grandfather’s funeral in Kumasi, Ghana, my extended family and I all wore matching outfits, as is the custom. In our tradition, fabric patterns have distinct meanings, and ours was printed with a symbol that resembles chain links, representing the unbreakable bonds between the living and the dead. There was a key variation, though, between the older and younger generations: While my female cousins and I left our heads uncovered, my aunties wore glossy black head wraps, tied in small bows at the center of their hairlines.

My grandmother and aunties own head wraps for every occasion. As a child, I loved watching my Aunt Violet produce glamorous, turbanlike creations from stiff, exuberantly patterned wax-print fabric. Sometimes she would let me add the finishing touches: a tighter twist, a smoothed crease. When my grandmother is overdue for a visit from the hair braider, she gossips with guests wearing soft cotton wraps in bright colors, knotted simply at the nape of her neck.

At the funeral, the elder women were beautiful as they danced under the searing afternoon sun, sending off my grandfather to the ancestral world. I admired one woman’s architectural head wrap that added at least three inches to her height. Despite the heat, these women all looked fresh. Bare shoulders. No hair in their faces. I longed for that kind of freedom — from the blow dryers and curling irons I used to keep my hair straight and long; from the daily battle with my damaged, brittle hair that now stuck to my sweaty neck. I fantasized about chopping it all off and growing a lush Afro. Later during that trip, at a hotel restaurant, I saw a woman around my age wearing a leopard-print head wrap twisted around her fluffy hair like a crown. I loved her style, but I wondered if I could get away with it.

There were reasons I had never worn a head wrap myself. Though I’d spent many glorious holidays bounding about Kumasi with my cousins, I didn’t grow up in Ghana. My father worked for the United Nations, and we moved back and forth between Europe and East Africa. In Italy, I was one of a few Black students at my school, and my coiled hair made me stand out even more than I already did. So, in middle school, I relaxed it. At first, I was pleased with my straight hair. But it soon broke off, leaving me with spiky sections that I disguised with headbands, clips and gel.

At 18, I moved to New York where I paid for college in part by working as a nightclub bottle-service girl. One Black woman who trained me instructed me to wear my hair long and straight. Later, working at nonprofits, I noticed that most of the Black female executives straightened their hair. Wherever I worked, I received messages — if not in so many words — to play down my Blackness and Africanness.

There were reasons I had never worn a head wrap myself.

But around the time of the funeral, America was facing a racial reckoning. At a protest after George Zimmerman was acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, I was captivated by a Black woman leading us in chants who wore a casual white tank top and a bold red head wrap.

After that, I noticed that Black women of all ages were wearing them. Once, I saw a woman with hers tied into a big pink-and-white, polka-dot bow. I saw a kente-cloth tower from which dreadlocks flowed. A delicate silk turban. Online, I found a company owned by a Black woman that offered a lot of choices. My first purchase was a bright yellow cotton one. Then I bought more. A burgundy one in stretchy T-shirt material. A satin-lined blue one. A wax-print one with a purple-and-green geometric pattern. One in glittery black and gold.

I spent hours experimenting with different ways of tying them. Laid out on the bed or on the floor, a head wrap looks like just a long, rectangular strip of cloth, but with some experience, you can do magic with it. Once you master some layering, twisting and tucking techniques, every outfit becomes more interesting. Tying a wrap becomes an everyday celebration of Blackness. Try it. After a while, you’ll develop muscle memory in your tying, and you’ll feel connected to your mother, aunties, grandmothers and the ancestors you never met. You might even feel connected to those strangers passing on the street who happen to be acquainted with the meanings embedded in the fabrics’ patterns: the one depicting a flying bird that is known in my community as Money Has Wings; the one with sugarcane-like lines that we call I Love You Like Sugar Cane.

There are practicalities to think of, too. In the summertime, a light cotton wrap keeps your hair up and your neck cool. In the winter, a thick one relieves you of the need for a winter hat, which can wreak havoc on natural hair. In all seasons, maybe more than any other accessory, a satin-lined head wrap is an ally to Black women, offering our hair rest from styling and protection from the elements. Maybe, like me, once you start wearing head wraps, you’ll straighten your hair less often and rediscover your natural coils or curls.

The first time I wore my yellow head wrap to work, I was nervous, but I held myself with confidence. I got some double-takes but also some compliments. Soon a few of my Black women colleagues started rocking head wraps. Today I own a drawerful. My favorite has a pattern that looks like a stone dropped into a well. It’s called Ripple Effect.