Textiles for the Head: Identity, Utility, Authority
Updated: Apr 14
I invited anthropologist and past E.Y.H.O. traveller, Christine Brown, to share her fascination and extensive knowledge about textiles worn on the head.
In traditional societies around the world, textiles play an important role in every aspect of a person’s life, from birth to death. When placed on the head, textiles serve very specific purposes--often multiple purposes simultaneously.
Textiles often identify the wearer’s ethnicity, geographical location, or life achievements.
This wide flared hat indicates the wearer is a married woman of the Zulu ethnic group in South Africa.
Textiles also indicate age, marital, or economic status. Women of the Tekke Turkoman ethnic group in Central Asia wear richly embroidered mantles that hang from the head instead of the shoulders, and cover the woman’s hair and back. The color of a woman’s mantle indicates her age range. Young women wear mantles with dark blue ground color; middle-aged women wear yellow; and older women wear white, as seen in this photograph.
In some cultures, textiles are worn to attract good fortune. Chinese majority and minority groups have a long history of creating children’s clothing, including shoes, bibs, and caps, that express a parent’s hope for a child’s future success in life. The cap seen in this photo is in the form of a tiger, expressing the hope that the child will grow up to be strong.
In other cultures, textiles are believed to deflect danger. Among the Rabari ethnic group in the state of Gujarat in western India, unmarried girls wear a pair of beaded leather discs over their temples to protect them from malign influences.
In many traditional cultures, people are obliged to carry heavy loads on their heads over long distances. This is especially true for girls and women who collect and transport water and firewood for use by their families, and carry goods and produce of all kinds to and from local markets. Women often place head rings on their heads to protect them from physical injury. This woman is of the Fulani ethnic group residing in the Sahel region of either Mali or Senegal.
Christine’s lecture on Tuesday March 30, 2021 will explore these and other purposes for which textiles are worn on the head.
Christine Brown earned a degree in Anthropology, served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, and spent a career working on international development projects in Africa and Asia funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. She has an enduring interest in the material culture of traditional societies around the world. Christine has co-curated three exhibitions of ethnic jewelry at the former Bead Museum in Washington, D.C.; lectured on textile-related topics at the current and former Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., the Mingei International Museum and the Asian Arts Council in San Diego, California, and to textile collecting groups in Los Angeles, California, and Washington, D.C.
E.Y.H.O. had the pleasure of travelling with Christine on our Odisha Tribal Tapestry tour in 2020.