When is a cloth not just a cloth? When it begins life on the heads of black female slaves. The ultimate purpose of the durag when it was first conceived was neither about choice nor functionality. It was enforced, a method to suppress black women’s beauty and distinguish their lowly, inferior status as labourers.
Today, the durag, an iteration of the head cloth birthed in oppression, is a celebration of black culture. Extolling its virtues are the artists who paint it, musicians who write songs about it, festivals dedicated to it and Instagram accounts born to serve it. The tainted fabric has been reclaimed as a symbol of black beauty, a signifier of style worn on the streets, the catwalk, the red carpet… And now, in a powerful mic-drop moment, the durag is making its first appearance on the May 2020 cover of British Vogue, worn by Rihanna.
The durag – also called a “do-rag”, though purists prefer the former – is defined in the Merriam Webster dictionary as “a close-fitting, typically stretchable piece of cloth that is worn on the head and that usually has long ends which are tied in the back”. That’s not the whole story. On a functional level, explains hair stylist Charlotte Mensah, “it serves as a tool to keep waves in check. Men with low cuts brush their hair in a forward motion and the durag is put on to compress the hair, creating a wave pattern”.
Rihanna in a crystal-embellished durag and Adam Selman gown at the CFDA awards in 2014.
© TIMOTHY A. CLARY
The popularity of durags amongst black men, says fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell, is closely related to the way the black community values hair and community. “Those playful Twitter videos, where young men gather together to untie their durags for ‘wave checks’, are a testament to the way hair and fashion interact to unify the black community”. That said, the grooming accessory is genderless. Women also use durags in the same way they use silk scarves and bonnets – worn to bed as a way to “lay down” edges, preserve hairstyles and retain moisture. For Cheyenne Kimora, an LA-based designer who launched You are Adorned, a handmade range of crystal-embellished durags, in 2019, it represents more than a hair accessory. “They take a stance for both social and political issues pertaining to our culture and they revolt against the false narratives that have put people like me at a grave disadvantage.”
One of those “false narratives” is rooted in ’90s hip hop culture. The durag, once a grooming aid seldom seen outside the house, began to gain popularity on the streets when rappers such as Jay-Z, Cam’ron, Nelly, Ja Rule, 50 Cent and even Eminem were seen sporting the hair covering as a fashion accessory. It was then, explains Joseph ‘JP’ Patterson, rap connoisseur and music editor at Complex UK, that “durags pretty much became synonymous with hip hop. But [the durag] went far beyond it. It became its own entity”.
Ja Rule and Nelly regularly wore durags as their musical careers took off in the 2000s.
© Scott Gries
Its influence, recalls Jude Pawson, co writer of Stormzy’s 2018 memoir Rise Up, was also felt on this side of the Atlantic. “Back then, I started wearing them to mimic some of my favourites like 50 Cent but I still wear them today to keep my hair tidy and add colour to my wardrobe,” he says. The association with rap culture solidified it as an object of style but conversely it also began to bear the weight of racist stereotyping. ‘‘Growing up in the UK,” remembers the DJ Tiffany Calver, “durags were simply a way of keeping your braids fresh. When I started watching MTV and 106 & Park, I began to see it more as a fashion statement. Then, because of the perception of the black man in hip hop, something that started as a hair protecting essential for black hair suddenly became ‘gang related’ and ‘thuggish’.”
The durag suddenly took on a “criminal” association. It was banned in numerous spaces: one principal of a US school argued that it was reflective of gang culture and “a direct component of the school-to-prison pipeline.” Durags, says Emma Dabiri, author of the bestselling book Don’t Touch My Hair, “were demonised in the same way that many forms of black cultural expressions are, even when they exceed the criteria for sophistication and refinement that would be afforded to their Eurocentic counterparts. But think about it, the use of satin head-ties to maintain immaculately waved hair is nothing less than debonair. And isn’t it ironic that the same institutions that decree our hair messy, untidy and unprofessional forbid durags, the use of which also extends to keeping cornrows neater in appearance for longer?”
The implications of censoring this cultural headdress is what inspired Cheyenne Kimora to launch her durag line. “The thought of it being used to criminalise us was a threat I could not sit on. It was important that I changed that narrative by creating a durag that represented just how beautiful black culture is and help to educate anyone that doesn’t look like me.”
Many creatives are using their platforms so that the durag can be viewed not only through a positive lens but, more crucially, be made visible in spaces where, explicitly or tacitly, the durag and what it represents has long been rejected. Kehinde Wiley, the lauded African-American artist who was the first person of colour commissioned to paint the official presidential portrait (his painting of Barack Obama hangs in the esteemed Smithsonian National Portrait Museum) appropriates historically white art images to feature people of colour. Many are wearing durags.
Similarly, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s video for Apes**t, famously filmed in the Louvre, features a silent but powerful moment showing two black women in white floor length durags, sitting beneath Jacques-Louis David’s 1800 Portrait of Madame Récamier. Beyoncé’s sister Solange has also used her profile to rehabilitate the durag: her ensemble at the 2018 Heavenly Bodies-themed Met Gala paid tribute to black saints, with her Iris van Herpen dress topped off with a black durag and a braided halo. The inscription at the hem of her headpiece read: My God Wears A Durag.
Solange Knowles at the 2018 Met Gala.
© Frazer Harrison
“The durag was about representation,” recalls Kyle Luu, Solange’s long-time stylist and her collaborator on that seminal night. “We didn’t really have a discussion about it. There was an understanding. It’s a kind of, ‘If you know, you know’. We played with the idea of it the night before and loved it but only decided to go with it an hour before walking the red carpet.” As expected, Black Twitter went into meltdown.
For those who “know” and those who may not, seeing the durag sartorially elevated and celebrated on the cover of British Vogue is hugely significant, as editor-in-chief Edward Enninful acknowledges in his May 2020 editor’s letter. “Did I ever think that I would see a durag on the cover of Vogue? No reader, I did not. Although this potent symbol of black life – of self-preservation, resistance and authenticity – has an important place in popular culture, it is rarely viewed through the prism of high fashion. Yet here we have the most aspirational and beautiful durag. How exciting.”
“My God Wears A Durag,” read Solange’s Met Gala outfit.
© Kevin Tachman
He added: “It takes a person of extraordinary charisma to pull off such a moment.” The person in question, Rihanna, has consistently been at the forefront of reframing the narrative around the durag. Indeed, it was Rihanna’s suggestion to include the durag in the first place. As Enninful writes: “We worked through a substantial archive of visual references (her fashion and cultural knowledge is encyclopaedic) to find a new proposition. Then suddenly, at 2am, my phone pinged with the latest WhatsApp: ‘How about we go with a durag?’” In 2014, she famously paired a Swarovski-encrusted Adam Selman slip dress with a matching blinging durag. In 2016, she wore a long black fishnet variant for her epic performance at the VMA awards. A month later, she showed her spring/summer 2017 Fenty x Puma collection at New York Fashion Week, with the models sporting durags in their candy coloured splendour.
The Fenty x Puma spring summer 2017 collection, presented during Paris Fashion Week.
© Victor Boyko
“I love that durags are becoming high fashion,” says Kimora. “It’s so beautiful to see – especially when it’s done with the dignity and the respect that it deserves.” Bianca Saunders, one of London’s fresh wave of designers whose work explores culture and identity, agrees. “I featured a durag in my first collection because it represented a way of being unapologetic. Seeing someone like Rihanna wear them for performances and on the red carpet is empowering. It shows other black people that it’s okay to show their blackness and it’s okay to make it fashion.”
Beyond an accessory or trend however, the durag embodies a tenet to pass down through generations. This was the ethos behind Nancy Redd’s Bedtime Bonnet, a children’s book that pays homage to the black hair traditions of headwraps and durags. “A durag on the red carpet is more than just a fashion choice,” says Redd. “It’s a statement of black pride from the wearer who is utilizing their influence to celebrate a facet of our culture that has either been ignored or unfairly denigrated by mainstream stereotypes.” It’s a notion that Thundercat, the eccentric Grammy-winning singer, bassist and Kendrick Lamar collaborator, took to heart when he dropped his music video for Dragonball Durag last month. “The durag is a superpower, to turn your swag on… it does something, it changes you.” He was being hyperbolic, of course – but then again, perhaps he wasn’t.
Sign up to the British Vogue newsletter to receive instructions on how to obtain your free digital download of the May 2020 issue on Friday 3 April here.
More from British Vogue…