How hats evolved in Africa

Words by Tia Muhammad

Hats have been a longtime accessory to men and women in Africa throughout centuries. Initially introduced as a form of protection from the natural elements, soon the necessity evolved into a much sought after accessory. Dating back as far as 3000 B.C.E. in Egypt, North African artifacts and drawings can be found depicting shaven headed men and women crowned with heads of tall hair, big jewels, and manmade ornaments. Uses were beyond just the eye. To keep cool, to show their status of hierarchy, or to represent their tribe, hats and headpieces were and still are a statement of worth, culture, style, and necessity.

Hats and headpieces have provided Africans multiple uses from acting as a basket for cropping, shade from the smoldering heat, protection from the rain, and diverts to animals, to attracting attention, expressing creativity, and showing status. By the 20th century the first forms of functional styles, by today’s definition, emerged in the majority of Africa reflecting the strong Islamic influence within the cultures, especially the Berbers of Morocco and other Saharan desert countries.

photo via

In West Africa, the traditional hat known for men is the kufi. A brimless cap usually made out of kente cloth, mud cloth, or a variety of knitted or crocheted yarns worn by many older men to symbolize their status as wise elders, religious people, or family patriarchs. In particular, it depicts one as showing pride in their culture, history, and religion. The kufi is also a sign of peace, mourning, renewal or protection of the mind. Hats like the kufi and kofia can be seen in almost every region of Africa and are actually a part of many official national African costumes.

In South Africa, the Zulu hat or also known as the Isicholos is a traditional grass woven hat worn by married Zulu women during religious or cultural ceremonies. They also had different variations of the hat that resemble the modern ‘top hat’. The Zulu hat is a symbol of both status and religion featuring traditional beadwork and distinct color patterns. Other popular hats throughout Africa include the Karakul, Bargashia, fez, taqiyah, tupi, pakol, and many other variations of the brimless hat.

The introduction of brims in Africa came in the most functional form and in the most readily available materials. The straw hat is made and used throughout Africa as a necessity to protect from the sun and an indicator of territory. For example, the Fulani Straw Hat is a trademark of the Fulani people of West Africa. A work of great cultural significance, the red material and tassels are leather while the frame is made of straw, and it is further decorated with handmade traditional cloth materials. The Fulani are migrant cattle herders found throughout West Africa.

Many other tribes had a variation of the same traditional straw hat. With colors and patterns distinguishing their own individual cultures, the African straw hat can be found in every part of the continent. The brimless and straw hats are considered traditional African hats, but there is far more history we have yet to uncover about traditional African millinery. It was only during the colonization period that notes were starting to be written and photographs were taken to journal the colonies new encounters with Africa. Although we may not know the precise ways in which they changed over time. It is almost certain, however, that African hat styles, like those of all other long-enduring cultures, have evolved over time. Migration, adaptation, and evolution are simply a part of the world we live in.

photo by

It was not until Europeans began trading and later developing colonies in Africa, starting in the thirteenth century C.E., that Western-style started to influence the style of dress in Africa. The popular hats we now wear today are all influences from Western and European style. Although these items were first combined with older African styles, by the twenty-first century it was not uncommon to see people in Africa wearing a fedora, bowler, pork pie, trilby, cowboy, flat cap, baseball cap and sun hats around that are all classic favorites in America and are still worn today.

Soon the influence of style came with a high demand for the product. African millineries began to sprout with a prominent milliner in the forefront and still pushing today, Simon and Mary. Planting its roots in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1935, the Simon and Mary brand pride’s itself on being one of the first successful millinery companies to still handcraft and construct all of their hats on traditional machinery in Africa with a contemporary twist today. The influence of western wear indefinitely brought on a new sense of style and pride to Africa. What was once a form of protection, today ring’s aloud a modern-day sense of pride, style, status, and culture… all through crowning at hat.

Share this