Durags and bandanas in modest fashion: appreciation or appropriation?

Are those who adopt styling that is integral to black identity contributing to discussions on racial inequality?

PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 03: A guest wears a Vuitton monogram bandanna, a checked pattern black and white jacket, a belt, earrings, and poses in front of a photographer, outside Vuitton, during Paris Fashion Week - Womenswear Fall/Winter 2020/2021 on March 03, 2020 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
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In July, a video was widely circulated on Instagram. In it, British-Moroccan-Pakistani model Mariah Idrissi offered advice on dealing with the struggles often faced by Muslim women who cover their hair.

Hers, throughout the video, is concealed beneath a black shayla, which is topped with a printed silk scarf tied at the back of her head, in the style of a durag. It’s an aesthetic that’s currently trending on Instagram, where both black and non-black modest fashion bloggers are showcasing bandanas and durag-inspired scarves on top of their hijabs.

Adopting the durag

Modest fashion bloggers have a knack for creatively and resourcefully adopting mainstream styles. Many clip pearl-embellished barrettes on to the sides of their hijabs, or tuck their hair into bucket hats, a “normcore” micro-trend. But these latest layered looks featuring bandanas and durags appear to be something deeper – an homage of sorts to black culture at a time when many are shining a light on racial inequality around the world.

Many Instagrammers who wear the hijab are embracing the trend, including @penneyyproud in Toronto, @fvtijm in Morocco, @hamziyeaman in Seattle, @ayahkawsara in Texas, @nawalsari in Sydney and @itsbeyzo in Dusseldorf, donning everything from Gucci and Fendi logo-printed silk scarves, to cotton, paisley-patterned bandanas.

In Vogue

British designer Kayleigh Benoit first came across the convergence of the two styles on photographer Amran Abdi, who wore a Louis Vuitton monogram-print red durag over her black hijab. “I have never doubled back to an image so fast,” she says. “I just stared at it in awe, and thought how stunning it looked.”

Benoit, who is in the process of launching Bind London, an inclusive sports headwear brand that will include hijabs and durags, points out that both are symbols of identity – the former as a marker of faith, and the latter as a signifier of cultural pride.

“I think there are some interesting parallels to be drawn – the durag is always redefining itself and how it is worn throughout history. Hijabis may identify with this in a similar way: how a simple piece of headwear can be so heavily politicised throughout history, but also be an effortless fashion statement,” Benoit says.

While the trend may appear aptly timed in light of #BlackLivesMatter, the durag has been on the rise in mainstream fashion: at the spring/summer 2020 New York Fashion Week, American designer Brandon Maxwell styled many of his black models in elegant satin durags, and Rihanna was pictured wearing a black durag on the cover of British Vogue in May.

Rihanna wearing a durag May issue 2020, by Steven Klein for British Vogue
Rihanna wearing a durag May issue 2020, by Steven Klein for British Vogue

Dina Yassin, the designer, art director and co-founder of Africa Fashion Week Middle East, has a deep knowledge of fashion history – especially when it comes to African styling. “Durags were originally worn by African-American women labourers and slaves in the 19th century,” she explains.

“Then in the 1930s and during the Harlem Renaissance and Great Depression, they were used to maintain and protect hairstyles. After the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s, they became a fashion statement among African-Americans, worn by rappers, athletes and men of all ages. Today, they’re still celebrated and worn by all genders in the African-American community.”

Bandanas, meanwhile, became go-to accessories for African-American rappers by the 1990s, and have been dipping in and out of fashion ever since, now re-emerging as a stylish topper for hijabs, tied as a durag or kerchief over face-framing headscarves. “It’s the power of making something old look new, fresh or trendy again – so if styled in a cool way that’s appealing to the modest or hijabi community, I believe durags and bandanas can really be a hit,” Yassin explains.

The spread of culture?

“It’s a spread of culture to some extent; a celebration of a statement piece that historically stood for something – but it has gone through so many social phases that I often wonder if millennials actually take the time to understand its significance.”

Some style bloggers, such as Abyan Kadir from London, are certainly conscious of the trend’s deeper meaning. “The bandana style incorporated into my outfits is heavily inspired by the hip-hop culture of the ‘90s,” she says, naming artists such as 2Pac, Aaliyah and TLC as trendsetters. “Young, black artists used hip-hop culture to create art and music to echo their social inequality, and I think it’s important to appreciate and bring these back.”

Style blogger Abyan Kadir
Style blogger Abyan Kadir

In addition to shaping urban style trends, black culture has long influenced the modest fashion sector, especially when it comes to headwear. Turbans, after all, such as those created by Somali model Halima Aden in collaboration with Modanisa, are immensely popular among hijab-wearing bloggers, and are rooted in African culture. “African modest dress involves covering the body by supplementing it with apparel and accessories such as head wraps and jewellery,” says Yassin. “Today, we see contemporary adaptations through modifications of the head wrap and inspirations from hip-hop street culture such as loose clothing, sneakers and an assortment of accessories.”

Black women, in particular, have been instrumental in the rise of modest fashion – an industry that is projected to be worth about $400 billion (Dh1.46bn) by 2024. Aden is one of the most famous faces of the movement, and Ikram Abdi Omar is another young Somali model who has worked with brands such as Burberry and Diane von Furstenberg.

Then there are the designers – from Ayana Ife, who became the first modest fashion designer on American reality series Project Runway in 2017, to British stylist Deborah Latouche, who launched her modest wear brand Sabirah, at London Fashion Week in February.

Model Halima Aden arrives for the 2019 CFDA Awards at The Brooklyn Museum in New York, U.S., June 3, 2019. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
Somali model Halima Aden. Reuters

“Black Muslim women have always played with unique layering techniques, especially with scarves and hats,” says Kayla Wheeler, an Islam and fashion studies professor in Cleveland, who is currently writing a book about the history of Black Muslim fashion in the US.

She points out, however, that these trending hijab styles are not really authentic durags, which are supposed to be tied tightly around the head to flatten the wearer’s hair and produce waves or maintain fresh braids. The styles worn by these style bloggers, she believes, share more similarities with the tichel – a head covering worn by some Orthodox Jewish women.

“To me, this reflects either the religious plurality within virtual modest fashion spaces, where Pentecostals, Quakers, Mormons and other Christians are in dialogue with Muslims and Jewish women, or it reflects the lack of knowledge of black aesthetics beyond visual cues on social media,” she says. “The thing that signals urban blackness to me, is the use of the paisley bandana.”

Cultural appreciation or appropriation?

Of course, you cannot highlight this trend without exploring it within the context of the cultural appropriation debate. From the questionable cornrow hairstyles shown on white models by brands such as Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and Valentino, to more extreme cases of blackface by brands including Gucci, Prada and Katy Perry’s shoe label, there are myriad sensitivities when it comes to the representation of blackness in fashion and media, as it is often “othered” and discriminated against, yet glorified when worn by a white, western elite.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 07: A model walks the runway at the Bradon Maxwell Ready to Wear Spring/Summer 2020 fashion show during New York Fashion Week on September 07, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
A model walks the runway at the Bradon Maxwell ready-to-wear spring/summer 2020 fashion show. Getty Images)

Benoit says there is a difference between “cultural appropriation” and “cultural appreciation”, and draws the line at those who claim ownership of trends originating from black culture. “I feel very honoured and inspired to see hijabis sporting durags,” she says.

Wheeler, on the other hand, categorises the trend as a case of clear cultural appropriation. “I do not think you can spread and share other peoples’ cultures if you do not give the people who created the styles credit,” she says. “It is important to look at how non-black people are able to financially benefit from appropriating black cultural practices that black people are shamed for participating in.”

While modest fashion bloggers donning durags may receive fame and acclaim on social media, black people are banned from wearing them in many schools, and wearing a durag can be used as a justification for being racially profiled by police, Wheeler points out. “Black Americans’ hyper-visibility has not led to more progress or freedom for black Americans. Non-black women are being praised for wearing things that black people are punished for.

“Social media provides people with a platform to share their different understandings of Islam, modesty and gender – however, some styles and bodies are still privileged,” Wheeler continues. “Social media does not erase power differentials … and highlighting different culturally specific styles opens them up to being appropriated.

“It is often hard to communicate such complex histories and meanings of particular dress practices in a picture.”

A surface-deep show of solidarity

Durag hijab trends may have emerged around the same time as the global #BLM movement, but according to Wheeler, this sartorial show of solidarity is only surface deep. “I do not think there is a way for people to style their hijab to express solidarity. One way to show solidarity is with your spending practices,” she says, calling for fashion influencers to choose which brands they partner with, and to support sweatshop-free black-owned businesses that work with ethically sourced materials. “These actions can actually make a difference,” she says.

Influencer Beyza Asan. Courtesy Beyza Asan
Influencer Beyza Asan. Courtesy Beyza Asan

Although apps such as Instagram help showcase styles from various cultures across the globe, Wheeler questions whether there are any true positives behind this virtual melting pot of aesthetics within the modest fashion niche. “I do not think there are many upsides to celebrating diverse hijab styles on social media. The downside is the overemphasis on Muslim women’s bodies,” she says, echoing a sentiment felt by many fellow Muslim women about the perpetual public discussions about their fashion choices and the covering of their bodies (or lack of).

Nevertheless, these very discussions about modesty trends, their diverse interpretations and their cross-cultural appropriations through Instagram, are what paved the way for the global modest fashion boom in the first place. Headscarves are finally being discussed outside of one-dimensional religious and political spheres, and the women leading this fashion movement are shattering stereotypes while finding new ways to experiment and express themselves stylistically, within a framework of faith.

And modest fashion trends are almost always motivated by ideals that go beyond mere aesthetics. “It isn’t just about being a trendsetter,” says Yassin. “It’s about captivating an audience, starting a conversation, sharing real experiences and selling the modest lifestyle.”