How durags and bandanas became a modest fashion staple

By adopting a style that is integral to black identity, are hijabis contributing to global discussions surrounding racial inequality – or is this just another case of cultural appropriation, asks Hafsa Lodi

Influencer Beyza Asan. Courtesy Beyza Asan
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Last month, a video was widely circulated on Instagram, generating more than 12,000 views within two weeks of being posted. In it, British Moroccan-Pakistani model Mariah Idrissi offers 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 by 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.

Modest fashion bloggers have a knack for creatively and resourcefully adopting mainstream styles. Many clip pearl-embellished barrettes onto 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.

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

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

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,” she says.

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

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 says of the accessory’s origins.

“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 black rappers by the 90s, 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,” says Yassin. “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 London-based Abyan Kadir, 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,” says Kadir, naming artists like 2Pac, Aaliyah and TLC as trendsetting style icons. “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.”

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 hijabi 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 by 2024. Aden, of course, 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.

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

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.”

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 like Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and Valentino, to more extreme cases of blackface with brands like Gucci, Prada and Katy Perry's shoe label, there are a 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.

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,” she says.

“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,” continues Wheeler. “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 complex histories and meanings of particular dress practices in a picture.”

Durag hijab trends may have emerged in parallel with 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.

Although apps like Instagram help spread 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 points out, echoing a sentiment felt by many fellow Muslim women about the perpetual public discussions about their fashion choices and the covering (or lack of) of their bodies.

Be that as it may, 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 females 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."