What Are Du-Rags Used For?
by Natasha Jackson-Arnautu
Du-rags are polyester head coverings intended to protect hairstyles during sleep. Du-rags gained in popularity during the 1940's and 1950's when hair straightening treatments became available for Black Americans. The texture of African hair made it difficult to maintain the styles of the time, but the du-rag allowed them the same styles of their white counterparts. A small piece of polyester helps maintain waves and give processed hairstyles a longer shelf life.
In popular culture, the du-rag is popular among Black Americans, but the history of the du-rag traces back to Africa and China. Mostly used by Black men today, the du-rag began as a convenient way for women to set their hair in particular styles. During the 1930's, women affixed du-rags to keep hairstyles of the day fresh. From the 1940's and on, when Black Americans began processing their hair, du-rags became a staple for Black men to keep hair styled during the night.
Throughout history the du-rag has served to keep hairstyles in place during sleep, setting, and work. During the 1940's when more women were entering the workforce, du-rags became a necessity for Rosie the Riveters. (This iconic term is used to describe the more than 6 million women who worked during World War II.) Today, even motorcyclists use du-rags under the helmet to keep hair from blowing in their faces while they ride. Du-rags are used commonly by Black men to keep their hair wavy, or to prevent braids from losing their structure.
Today's du-rag is made mostly of polyester, however throughout history du-rags have come in a wide variety of fabrics. From the silk du-rags of Latin America to the cotton bandanas worn by Rosie the Riveters in the 1940's, the du-rag come in all types. Du-rags have become so popular that they are now available in a wide variety of colors, almost like an accessory. The polyester du-rag has proven most effective as it allows African-American hair to breathe while keeping the style in tact. Du-rags are made from a long piece of fabric to cover the length of the head plus a few inches, with long ties near the ears so the wearer can tie the du-rag to ther desired tightness.
The biggest misconception about the du-rag is that it serves more of a style purpose than a functional one. Although du-rags are available in a wide selection of colors, they do provide African-American hair with an easy to maintain complicated hairstyles. Although some du-rag users wear them all day long, it is meant to maintain a hairstyle or to achieve a wavy hairdo for short-haired Black men.
The du-rag is significant because it illustrates how the joining of styles and cultures evolve over time. Many people have a negative stereotype of individuals who wear du-rags, but by understanding the history of the du-rag, it's clear that it was never intended to serve as a gang identifier or a way for rappers to accessorize. The unique history of the du-rag reminds us that fashion, like history has a way making the old, new again.