feature: ‘unconquerable beauty’ – black feminine protest using hair styles

March 9, 2015
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Hair styles, hats and hair adornments have been used since before the ancient Egyptians as a form of protest, to show social standing, power, and reflect current styles and trends.

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor

. Marie Leveau 

Mythological Sampson derived all his physical strength from his hair.  In 1786 when the Spanish Governor of the Louisiana Territory, Esteban Miró, announced his Edict of Good Governance, he had one thing in mind, to prevent white men from pursuing romantic relationships with free women of color, Native Americans and slaves.

His edict started with an insult to women of color: “The idleness of the free negro and quadroon women is very detrimental, and those who abandon themselves to same, is because they subsist from the product of their licentious life without abstaining from carnal pleasures, for which I admonish them to drop all communication and intercourse of vice, and go back to work, with the understanding that I will be suspicious of their indecent conduct, by the extravagant luxury in their dressing which already is excessive, and this only circumstance will compel me to investigate the customs of those who will present themselves in this manner. The distinction which exists in the hair dressing of the colored people, from the others, is necessary for same to subsist, and order the quadroon and negro women, wear feathers, nor curls in their hair, combing same flat or covering it with a handkerchief if it is combed high as was formerly the custom.” He hoped that by insulting women of color and by mandating that women of color cover their hair, they would be less attractive to white men.


Marie Tat Pajaud is courtesy of Tai Phouc Taylor

Code Noir was an edict by the French Crown in 1724 that sought to codify behavior and relationships between French, Native Americans, free people of color and slaves in French holdings in the Caribbean and in the Louisiana Territory. Despite Code Noir, French and Spanish colonists pursued relationships and lived openly with free women of color and Native Americans. They also legally acknowledged and made arrangements to care for children born from these relationships. Many of these children became powerful free people of color and were called Creoles.

Creole women inherited land and property, owned businesses, and received educations long before it became the norm for other colonial women. Miró attempted to make Creole and free women of color less attractive to white colonists by having them cover their beautiful hair.  His edict of Good Governance was also intended to enforce racial boundaries which had been blurred because some women of color were indistinguishable from white women of the time and because many of the white male colonists were pursuing relationships with women of color out of their preference for women of color over white female colonists.

Aretha Franklin


Women of color familiar with the African headdresses like the gele or duku which were worn as fashion accessories or as functional hair coverings subverted the Edict of Good Governance. Instead of the tignon denigrating Creoles and free women of color, these women used it to enhance their beauty. Brightly colored fabrics and adornments were used to make tignons more stylish and attractive. The tignon became a way of showing social standing (the higher the tignon and the more expensive the fabric the higher the social status of the wearer) and communicating relationship status. The number of tignon knots could signify you were in a relationship, or you were single.

Eventually the tignon was worn by many white women and became a fashion statement in France.  Instead of stigmatizing free people of color, the tignon took on a life of its own. It became was a powerful form of non-verbal self-expression and protest by the women of color in New Orleans. The tignon was worn by New Orleans icons like Marie Laveau and the tradition has continued. It is worn by present-day New Orleans icons like Madame Barbara Trevigne, who keeps the story and history of the tignon and protest by Creoles alive in her lectures on the subject.


Erykah Badu


The story of the tignon in Louisiana history is another example of the constant resistance to racial and sexual subjugation that has always been waged by women of color.  The tignon style continues today because displays of style and beauty are still important as a form of protest and self-expression. The history of the tignon reminds us that beauty in all its forms is unconquerable.

Information about the tignon was provided by Madame Barbara Trevigne (pictured below), an expert on the subject who speaks widely about the history of the tignon as it relates to Louisiana history.


Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. He has a contact blog www.findingoctave.com/contact.html for readers who may want to contact him.