Style Brief history of durag

Brief history of durag

Andrea Tuzio

What the durag is?

If we were to answer this question in a literal way, the durag is a simple piece of cloth, a hair scarf for short – made of nylon or polyester – used in different ways, but it has an important history that should not be forgotten.

We can place the beginning of it all during a very sad and dark period in American history, the period between the 16th and 19th centuries during which slavery in the United States was at its highest point of exploitation. An estimated 12 million Africans were deported to the United States of America during that period, and of these at least 645,000 were destined for the territories that later became part of the U.S. nation. By 1860 the slave population in the U.S. had grown to 4 million. 

And it was in this cultural-historical context that the durag made its first appearance; it was worn primarily by slaves and African American workers during working hours. Used primarily to keep the hair neat and clean, as much as one could, it is only with the Great Depression and the Harlem Renaissance, this is the early 1930s, that the durag becomes an accessory in its most contemporary sense. 

Toward the end of the 1960s, and thus after the 1960s Civil Rights Movement for African Americans-whose goals were to end racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans, to ensure legal recognition and federal protection of the rights of citizenship enumerated in the Constitution-that the fate of the durag took a completely different turn than in previous years. It became an almost indispensable accessory by African Americans from all walks of life, rappers, athletes, ordinary citizens of all ages, transforming into a true symbol of belonging.

The durag aesthetic quickly won over all African American youth to the point that some states banned its use in schools as part of what was a crackdown on student dress codes. This was because the imagery that developed around the durag was one associated with the criminal world (gang members, drug dealers, criminals of all sorts also wore it as a sign of recognition and belonging) and as a result much of the population, especially among whites, gave an extremely negative meaning to this accessory.

The interference of public opinion and at the same time the expansion of the durag fad led the National Football League (NFL) in 2001 and the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 2005 to ban the durag. This choice aroused quite a bit of controversy: for many, in fact, the choice of the two U.S. professional sports leagues with the highest rate of African-American athletes was taken to demonize an expression of black culture thus a racially motivated choice.

In this way the durag took on an even stronger intrinsic value, from a simple fashion accessory representing African American culture, it became a true symbol of the fight against racism – just think of the cover of Vogue starring Rihanna wearing a durag, accompanied by an anti-racist editorial embodying a new example of socio-political engagement against discrimination and in favor of collective progress from a standpoint of acceptance of what is considered different for whatever reason.

Over time, the durag has taken its place in American culture, becoming a must-have in contemporary fashion by rightfully entering the world of American show-biz and primarily rap, with the likes of ASAP Rocky, Jay-Z, Tyler the Creator, and many, many others having worn it often or wearing it constantly. A piece of cloth (whether nylon or polyester) that has written and continues to write the history of black culture in the United States of America.  

Written by Andrea Tuzio
Listen on