Head ties are a familiar garment that is worn in several different countries in Africa. Due to the diversity of the continent and the number of other ethnic groups, the way that head ties are produced and worn varies between countries (Empire Textiles, n.d.). This explainer focuses on a head tie called the 'Gele'.
The Gele is a head tie worn primarily by women in Nigeria and West Africa. It emanated from the Yoruba culture, and its origin is hard to trace. Many archival photographs over a century old suggest that Gele has been around much longer than when those pictures were taken (African Arts, 2020).
Apart from artistic impressions of a 19th-century famous businesswoman, Madam Efunroye Tinubu, one photograph of her suggested a basement on which Gele evolved. In the picture, dated 1887, Madam Tinubu adorned what looked like a mini Gele but was covered by a long shawl flowing down her shoulders. Supporting that the Gele may have been around before the 19th century was a picture by Kingsley Mary Henrietta published in 1901. The photo shows two women and a girl as all three adorned Gele (African Arts, 2020).
Traditionally, the Gele was used to represent a woman's marital status. If worn to the right, the woman was married, while if worn to the left, she was single. Because larger Geles cost more than smaller ones, they can also serve as status symbols in society.
As of the 20th century, Gele headwear has become more stylish and extensive in aesthetic and sculptural design. The emergence of the Buba (native Yoruba blouse), Iro (traditional wrapper), and the Ipele (a cloth made from the same fabric as the Gele and draped around the shoulder) increased interest in the Gele. The three-piece: Buba, Iro and Ipele, was seen as incomplete without the Gele.
They are worn for many occasions, such as weddings, burials, festivals, state functions and religious gatherings. The type of occasion will determine the type of fabric and how the Gele would be tied. A typical Nigerian woman has the right Gele for every occasion.
Fabrics For Tying Gele
A Gele is tied with a flat piece of fabric. This fabric used to create Gele must be stiff enough to hold and flexible to be moulded. The most common fabrics for tying Geles are Sego, Aso-Oke, Ankara, Bazin, Damasc, Jubilee and Brocade (Gretta, 2017).
The Gele in vogue is the one made of Aso-Oke. This type is typically not overly extravagant; however, more steps can be added based on what the wearer desires (Iwalaiye, 2021).
A Gele piece used with traditional clothing could be the same colour and material. It can have various textures and be formed of multiple materials. Regardless of the clothing, it can be utterly contrasting, with or without prints.
The Art of Tying Gele
Typically, a Gele only leaves the face and lower portion of the earlobes exposed while thoroughly covering the woman's head and ears. There are numerous creative ways to tie a Gele, which calls for unique skills.
Some styles of tying the Gele include Small Gele, Infinity Pleats Gele, Butterfly Gele, Knot Gele, Aso-Oke Gele, Orente Gele, Turban Gele, and Rose Gele.
Although the Gele can be tied on the wearer's head, there are also Geles that are ready-to-wear (commonly called auto-Gele), making it convenient for women with no skill of Gele tying to wear the same Gele styles.
Gele In Contemporary Fashion
The Gele has evolved throughout the years and over the centuries, it has given rise to women's consciousness in native dressing generally. As a design, the Gele female fashion tradition, in the diaspora, has been adopted as a style and cultural symbol. In 2016, Lupita Nyongo sported the Gele for the movie premiere of Queen of Katwe. The headpiece's journey into the broad international space has also been seen in Beyoncé’s Black Is King film (African Art, 2020).
Modern designers such as Gele Guru add more flair to the Aso-Oke Gele by using sequined or beaded scalloped edges, laser-cut designs, hand-beaded, two-tone effects, Swarovski encrusted, hand-painted, embroidered, and any other design aesthetic that can be imagined.
Over the years, other West African countries such as Ghana have adopted the Gele as part of their clothing ensemble.
By Louisa Pokua Owusu-Afriyie, Africa's Young Fashion Leaders Fellow (Project Management) at the Council for International African Fashion Education
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Image Credits: Jiji Blog