The headwrap originated in sub-Saharan Africa. For centuries, it has been worn by women in different African countries and regions, in different forms, to reflect both communal and personal identities – which clan or tribe they belonged to, whether they were married, widowed, young or old, for example. This cotton kerchief, or headwrap, belonged to Nancy Burns (1800 – 1849). Born in Albany, New York, the daughter of slaves, she would eventually find work as a house servant and was painted in a portrait wearing the item in the 1840s. It represents a long history of cultural identity associated with women of African origin – particularly African-American women – that is still very much alive today.
African women living and working under slavery in the Americas often covered their heads with plain cotton kerchiefs like this one. Such textiles became a major trade line for British manufacturers who imported goods from one part of the empire (India) and processed and re-exported them to overseas markets. To plantation owners they were sometimes seen as symbols of subordination and poverty – a badge of enslavement and oppression. But to enslaved women they were a direct link to their African heritage and could serve as a form of fashion, cultural resistance, and communal and personal identity.
These headwraps could be tied in many different ways – with folds, pleats and knots creating layers and shapes reflecting different status and carrying different meanings. While protecting her hair from the dust and grime of agricultural tasks, perspiration and lice, the wearer could maintain traditions of her African heritage and identity – essential in resisting the intense psychological humiliation that enslaved peoples were subjected to.
Nancy’s headwrap is a reflection of her identity as a woman of African origin and of her enslavement in America. She chose to wear this simple piece of Madras cotton, folded, shaped and tied ‘just so’ with pride – and possibly in defiance of a society that still viewed Black men, women and children as inferior.
Did you know..?
Making quilts was also a form of resistance among enslaved African women, with techniques and patterns tracing back to African cultural traditions. Some were made to carry coded messages for those attempting to escape the southern American States for freedom in the north via the underground railroad.
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.