Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

“Crowning Achievements:

African Arts of Dressing the Head”

When I was a child, I used to spend my summers in the small town of Nashville, Ga.—not Tennessee—the home of my paternal grandmother. Most days Grandma Bass’ silver hair was done in short plaits like a little girl’s, but whenever she went out she would put on a small, turbanlike cap, which covered her braids, and on Sunday she would always wear a pixie-style wig and a fancier hat, as did the other senior women of the church.

I don’t think my grandmother and her friends realized it, or would have been glad to know it, but they were preserving a part of their African heritage. Perhaps they would have been more proud of their African connection had they seen “Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

The exhibit features over 180 hats and headdresses from the early 19th century to the present, representing many different regions. There are everyday hats, formal hats, and hats with special religious or ceremonial significance. There are displays of headwraps, hairstyles, and even hats made of hair. There’s also a section that examines the African influence on hat styles now popular in America. Part of the exhibit looks at the full range of headwear in two Zairian societies—the Lega and the Kuba. And a display of 12 culturally distinct hats provides museumgoers with in-depth context, from the hats’ creation and purpose to the wearers’ cultures to the way the hats came to be acquired by the museum.

In some parts of Africa, it is believed that spirits or gods can descend on people’s heads, granting them protection or special powers, so it’s no surprise that people invest a great deal of time and energy in how their heads look. In Africa, headwear can signal the wearer’s age, gender, social standing, cultural group, and marital status—all of which makes perfect sense. It’s much easier to note someone’s headdress than to look for a small gold band on the third finger of the left hand.

For many Africans, especially women, covering the head fulfills expectations of modesty and propriety. I remember in Nashville some churches required that something be worn on the head—a hat, a small square of lace—but even without such rules no woman of maturity would dare go to church unadorned. And the fact that you could tell a mile away that the older ladies had on wigs didn’t seem to matter. It wasn’t about looking natural, but looking proper.

Even today I think of the black church when I think about hats. I can remember many a Sunday morning when my mother would ask my opinion on what would go best with a particular dress. To brim or not to brim, that was the question. She would expertly sift through the boxes of hats she had collected over the years, searching for the perfect one. From beaded sailor caps to wide-brims to fanciful swirls of fabric that looked about to take flight, those hats captured my imagination. Even today, the best place to see the remains of African hat culture in America is the church.

Several of the hats in “Crowning Achievements” could easily be worn by today’s fashionable church women. One of my favorites is a man’s hat from the Gola people of northwestern Liberia. The edge of the brim of this woven basketry hat is trimmed with imported red wool. Alternating leopard-skin patches and cowrie-shell florets adorn the upper brim and cap, and silky ostrich feathers ring the crown.

Hats can be made of so many different things. Most often some kind of fiber, but some cultures rely heavily on animal products—monkey hides, elephant ears, iguana skins, bird feathers, and crocodile skins. Among the Lega in Zaire, scales from the pangolin, a small armadillolike animal that curls into a ball for protection, are used for men’s hats. Because the pangolin is considered sacred and has a natural set of armor, hats made with the scales symbolize power and strength and are worn primarily by the highest leaders. Animal symbology figures heavily in many other hats. An initiate’s hat from Guinea-Bissau is adorned with prickly blowfish skin, cow horns, and wooden sculptures of birds. These relatively unthreatening animals symbolize the initiate’s youth. Instead of using actual animal product, beads and other materials can be employed to form likenesses of animals. A Yoruba king’s crown is topped with an image of the royal bird, Okin.

Twentieth-century hatmakers made generous use of metal and plastic products. A Sudanese warrior’s chain-mail helmet from the early 1900s looks not unlike the headdress Tina Turner donned for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Small leather amulets sewn to the helmet contain passages from the Koran to protect the warrior in battle. Jazz bandleader Sun Ra, whose music featured outer-space themes, would have favored the Nigerian ajibulu. This crescent-shaped Ijo chief’s hat is traditionally adorned with feathers, a ram’s beard, and the national symbol, multicolored concentric circles. Modern accessories also include mirrors, beads, and small plastic items, such as the tiny gold rocket ships adorning the one featured in “Crowning Achievements.”

Before Patrick Kelly, there were the Lega. The button-loving designer would have adored these basket-weave designs dating back to the 1940s and made with different colored buttons in symbolic or decorative patterns. Did Kelly in fact get his inspiration from these African designs or is this merely another case of what comes around goes around?

In every church there’s always one woman who likes to flaunt her wealth and single status through elaborate hats with matching shoes. The huge, bright-orange, feathered headdress worn by Tikar dancers in Cameroon reminds me of something Patti LaBelle would wear in concert. While it is beautiful, most women would find it too ostentatious for Sunday service. It does come with a most innovative special feature—when turned inside out, the fiber cap, to which the feathers are attached, becomes a storage case and protective cover.

For better or worse, African culture has been significantly influenced by the West. Not only in the use of new materials, but also in the modified shapes of some African hats can the colonial influence be seen. In Ivory Coast, hats carved from wood resemble pith helmets. A more flamboyant example is the Yoruba king’s crown made of white beads and fashioned after a barrister’s powdered wig. The wig looks odd enough on old white men, let alone dark-haired black people. The hat takes the customary ridiculousness to new heights.

The more traditional Yoruba king’s crown of multicolored beads done in symbolic patterns is usually ringed by a beaded veil. Similarly, a tin crown from Brazil worn by a priestess of water goddess Yemanjà is lined with a veil of white glass beads. Brazil was one of the first stops on the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and some aspects of Yoruba culture are better preserved there than in the motherland.

The trans-Atlantic influence continues in the U.S., though in less pure form. “Crowning Achievements” features a wide array of modern African-inspired hats, most of which look cheap next to their native counterparts—like the kente-pattern baseball cap with hot pink accents. The Rastafarian hats from Jamaica, however, are quite nice. Done up in red, green, and yellow and made of leather or cloth, they come in larger than average sizes to accommodate the Rastas’ long locks, which are never cut. My favorite is the “Peter Tosh” wig, which became popular after the reggae star performed in Zimbabwe. With long, twisted sisal fibers all askew, it resembles tiny dreadlocks.

Speaking of hair, it wouldn’t be right if the exhibit didn’t pay some tribute to that most natural of adornments. In addition to the various headdresses and wraps, hair itself is often braided, twisted, or shaved into various styles that convey an individual’s position in society, particularly the difference between youth and adult.

In the States as well as in Africa, the use of synthetic hair extensions has become commonplace. “Crowning Achievements” features a few samples of loose weaving hair, which sit sadly in little piles inside a glass case, not even accompanying a braided wig. Verging on becoming too deep, the accompanying text reads, “Some of these styles are created as social commentary, others celebrate topical events and still others are inspired by popular music and other forms of music.” All of which translates roughly into “I don’t have to straighten my hair just to please the Man” or “Hook me up with those Janet Jackson braids, please.”

Even though today the majority of fake hair comes from China, it’s oddly comforting to know that the first weave was probably invented by the Masai, who used fat and ocher to bind grass fibers into their own hair. In similar fashion, Zulu women make the isicholo hat out of human hair, which is woven with fibers and then dyed with ocher and fat. The hat, consisting of a headband attached to a wide, flared disk, is pretty fierce. With a navy-blue suit, brick-red blouse, and brick-red pumps to match, you could definitely sport this ensemble at church to high praise from the sisters. The isicholo also comes in a cloth version for those who cringe at the thought of wearing someone else’s hair.

“Crowning Achievements” also features an extensive collection of “combs”—basically Afro picks—in different shapes and sizes, made of wood, ivory, or straw. No black fists, but all are decoratively etched with designs or scenes, including one that looks like the profile of a man wearing a Kangol.

Men’s haircuts often are based on Western magazines and images. In the ’70s, Afro styles such as the “Hi-Fi” and the “J. Brown” were hot. In the ’80s, Eddie Murphy’s asymmetrical cut and the eraser-top style of rapper Kid (of Kid ’n Play) were popular models.

Likewise, some of the men’s hats in the exhibit don’t look very different from hats found in markets today. Woven and embroidered skullcaps from the Hausa, Islamic in origin, have increased in popularity as that religion has grown more popular in this country. Whereas many American men wear them simply to look good, design elements of the African hats also convey a man’s status. It’s also not too hard these days to find Fulani-style hats made of straw and leather in a conical or bell shape that resembles Chinese farmworkers’ hats.

The wide variety of “Crowning Achievements” emphasizes the lasting importance of headwear, and the inclusion of modern examples highlights the exhibit’s timeliness. The day I viewed the exhibit I saw several African expatriates wearing smart little hats from their homelands. I had left my home bareheaded that day, fearing that the impending rain would ruin my straw sunhat, the only real hat I own. (Baseball caps don’t count.) Seeing the show made me think of my grandmother and mother. It made me lament the lack of hatboxes in my own closet. And it made me wonder whether these vestiges of African culture in America were starting to fade even further.CP