Headwear of African Cultures

I he variety of hairstyles and head-wear in Africa matches the diversity of the people who live on the continent. Different cultures have used hairstyles and headwear to show tribal association, gender, religion, job, and social status. In addition, the various cultures have created wigs, hats, hair ornaments, razors, and combs to aid in adorning the head. The importance of head-wear to African culture is witnessed by the many statues and masks of ancient Africa that show detailed hair ornamentation.

In Africa braided hair has been transformed into an art form. Africans have developed a unique tradition of weaving both men's and women's hair into complex and intricate designs of braids, twists, and coils to express the wearer's social and cultural identity. The head might be adorned with rows of tiny braids resting tightly against the scalp, or crowned with intricate coiled braids. Braids are beautified with beads, clay, or oil. Many of these styles require help to create. The Hamar people of Ethiopia and the Himba of Namibia are among the many Africans who style their hair with braids.

Some groups cut their hair very short or shave their heads completely. In these societies, the head is decorated in other elaborate ways; the ears and neck are often heavily ornamented, and the facial skin is painted or scarred. The Samburu women of Kenya wear headdresses of many colored beads on their shaved heads. !Kung

Cowrie Shells Hair
A young woman on the Ivory Coast wearing a hat made with cowry shells. Headwear was often decorated with natural elements such as shells and feathers. Reproduced by permission of © Brian A. Vikander/CORBIS.

women of Namibia tie bead pendants onto the ends of their short hair.

Other groups completely cover the head. Many women throughout Africa, including the Xhosa of South Africa, wrap scarves around their heads. Berber women in North Africa and other followers of Islam cover their heads and faces with scarves and veils. Married Zulu women of South Africa wear large flat woven hats decorated with beads. The Turkana of Kenya and the Karamojong of Uganda coat their hair in clay to create elaborate hairdos, some of which are adorned with feathered plumes.

Hairdressing continues to be important in African societies. Many traditional hairstyles continue to be worn by groups living in remote regions and by others for ceremonies and special occasions. However, many Africans living in cities have adopted Western hairstyles and hats.

A soldier in the Ghanaian presidential guard wearing a red fez cap. Reproduced by permission of© Paul Almasy/CORBIS.


Blauer, Ettagale. African Elegance. New York: Rizzoli, 1999.

Kennett, Frances, and Caroline MacDonald-Haig. Ethnic Dress. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

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