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How the Durag Became a Political Statement

The case for why this much-maligned style accessory deserves our admiration

TThe durag is an easily recognizable piece of cultural iconography in the Black community. For men, it serves as a tool to keep their waves on point; for women, it’s the solution to flyaway baby hairs and moisture loss, preserving our hairstyles as we go about our week. Despite its often negative and somewhat derogatory depictions in mainstream media, the durag is more than a physical garment with a functional use. Now more than ever, Black women are reclaiming it as both a fashion and political statement.

WeWe can anecdotally trace the durag back to the early 19th century, when slaves used scarf material to tie their hair back while working. More recently, the look became widely popular in the 1990s and early 2000s as rappers wore them publicly like Cam’ron, who sported a pink durag under a pink bucket hat while performing in the Rap City basement. 50 Cent, Nelly, and Jay-Z also popularized the look, which took on a personality beyond preserving hairstyles to represent a shared experience of Blackness.

Black women have used durags not only as fashion accessories but also as catalysts for social discourse.

“The narrative around the durag has morphed quite a bit throughout the decades,” says Anabel Maldonado, fashion journalist and founder of The Psychology of Fashion. “Growing up in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, especially during a time that was hip-hop’s golden age, I saw the durag as aspirational and fetishized.” But not everyone agreed on its sartorial value. In 2005, the Washington Post featured a column by Jabari Asim titled “The Case Against Do-Rags” where he argued that durags were not “an emblem of individuality and rebellion against the status quo,” but rather “represents the opposite: slavery.”

DDespite its detractors, Black women have used durags not only as fashion accessories but also as catalysts for social discourse. We’ve unabashedly taken the style from the red carpet to the covers of glossy magazines. Think back to 2014 when Rihanna wore a Swarovski crystal-encrusted durag to match her Adam Selman dress to accept the CFDA Fashion Icon award. Her outfit sent a message that Black culture is, and forever will be, high fashion (despite racially systemic practices that continue to marginalize many people of color from the fashion industry). Years later, she would wear a durag for her performance at the 2016 VMAs, and also feature models in durags for her 2017 Fenty x Puma fashion show.

More recently, Solange wore a black durag underneath her braided updo at the 2018 Met Gala. The words on the back were provocative, arresting, and genius: “My God wears a durag.” Fashion statements like this easily become political, as a head adornment not only introduces Black culture in mainstream spaces, but also equips Black women to reclaim a narrative that has existed against the Black community for years, one that argues we can’t be mainstream successful and also “too black.”

“Seeing stars like Solange and Rihanna wearing elevated takes on the durag to red-carpet events heralds a whole new era,” says Maldonado. “It’s doing away with the ‘sitting-on-the-porch with slippers’ trope society has associated with the durag, and reclaiming it as an emblem of Black pride.”

TToday, the durag holds a special place in the heart of a community that has been judged by the hair that grows from their scalp. Joseph Headen and Asha David decided to explore that narrative for a YouTube skit, not knowing the end result would birth something greater known as Durag Fest. “The idea came to us over an IHOP table,” they explain. “We originally were planning a skit for YouTube based on the idea of Trump banning durags and what that would mean to our culture. For filming, we needed 30-plus people to come to the park in Raleigh, NC, so we put out a casting callout for ‘Durag March,’ and people gravitated to it. With it being a few weeks before Thanksgiving, we decided to attach a canned good/coat drive to give it more of a community-positive impact. Eventually, the focus became unity and owning our own narrative.”

We no longer need to apologize for our Black roots. And roots.

At Durag Fest, you will undeniably see bedazzled durags, durags with a train, durags with word stitching, and of course, women putting their own funk on the timeless classic. “I think women have taken it into more of a fashion aspect,” they note. “There’s a lot of women out there with natural, short hair who use it to maintain their waves as well, it’s really beautiful to see. We feel the durag is one of those things that can’t be easily adapted to other cultures. We’re so happy something so undeniably Black is being appreciated again.”

Of course, Black women are also shaping the culture behind the scenes, like fashion designer Cheyenne Kimora, whose You Are Adorned durag went viral on Instagram. “I think there definitely was a stigma to durags, but people like myself are changing that story,” she says. “It has very little to do with the durag honestly, and more of what the durag means to our culture. You’re seeing school walkouts happen because kids are protesting what the durag signifies to them. Photographers are incorporating durags in their photo series to capture the beauty of their culture, and it’s prevalent in fashion left and right. I think we’re tired of the stigma, and learning instead to defend our culture, especially in the times that we live in.” In other words, we no longer need to apologize for our Black roots. And roots.

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