Description

The tignon (ˈtēyôN) is an 18th century headdress with origins in Louisiana, the Spanish Colonial Gulf, the Caribbean, and West Africa. It is a kerchief that both free and enslaved women of African descent were mandated to wear in the colonies of the so-called “New World.” Its intended function was as a tool of racial and class profiling, imposing on the wearers both racialized and colonial subjectivities. It is contested by scholars whether or not the mandate actually altered the dress practices of the period or merely remained a discursive symbol of the colonial government. Head-wrapping has been a consistent dress practice within the African diaspora for millennia and precedes the mandate, making it unclear whether or not the tignon is a continuation of a pre-existing practice or a colonial imposition as is suggested by legislative records.[1]

On June 2, 1786, Esteban Rodriguez Miró, the then-governor of Spanish colonial Louisiana, pronounced his Bando de buon gobierno (Edict of good government). He expressed particular concern with the role of free people of African descent in the colony. Article Six of the edict included a series of sumptuary guidelines that discursively prohibited both free and enslaved women of African descent—nègre and cuarterón (Black and quadroon)—from adorning themselves and their hair. Miró demanded that their hair must be wrapped in a kerchief, citing that “The distinction which exists in the hair dressing of the colored people, from the others, is necessary for same to subsist, and order the quadroon and negro women, wear feathers, nor curls in their hair, combing same flat or covering it with a handkerchief if it is combed high as was formerly the custom.”[2] In essence, the edict was an attempted ban on Black elegance, autonomy, and self-fashioning. Any “‘excessive attention to dress’ was considered evidence of misconduct.”[3]

The paradox of Miró’s edict was that despite the tignon’s intended purpose—as a symbol of colonial subjection and undesirability—it instead became a signifier of rebellious self-fashioning, status, power, and even freedom. The tignon, which was supposed to be plain, inconspicuous and reminiscent of the utilitarian head coverings of enslaved plantation workers, was made luxurious, vibrant, and fashionable through the use of finely-printed and brightly-colored Madras cotton, elaborate ties, and other added accessories. Even wealthy white women began to appropriate the tignon as a fashionable piece of dress despite their initial urging of Miró to instate it at the beginning of his tenure.

While there is little evidence of enforcement of Article Six of the Bando in day-to-day life—there are no arrest records, for example, that mention headwear—Miró’s edict emphasizes the deep-seated fears held by the colonial establishment about Black social mobility, sexuality, and freedom. Miscegenation, in reality and imagination, threatened the fragile myth of racial difference on which white supremacy, American chattel slavery, and European colonialism were founded and maintained.

While Miró’s edict emphasized the colonial position that ‘excessive’ adornment was in itself inherently queer or suspect on the bodies of women of color, his pronouncement also asserted that the level of a woman’s fashionability was invariably related to her proximity to “vice”[4] and latent sexuality. The assertion then was that sartorial flamboyance was a: 

product of their licentious life without abstaining from carnal pleasures, for which I admonish them to drop all communication and intercourse of vice, and go back to work, with the understanding that I will be suspicious of their indecent conduct, by the extravagant luxury in their dressing which already is excessive, and this only circumstance will compel me to investigate the costumes of those who will present themselves in this manner.[5]

Through plaçageinformal yet legally-recognized liaisons between women of color and white men—free and enslaved women of color gained relatively unprecedented access to social and economic capital through the notarized inheritance of real estate, manumission, and money. The liminality of their race, class, and marital status in a colonial society built on alleged racial distinction granted many women of color access to a kind of social mobility that incited fear and caused conflict. Even more offensive to the colonial establishment was the fact that these women remained flamboyant in their presentation—both before and after the edict of 1786. As such, Miró’s mandate, perhaps more symbolic than material, can be understood as not only a censure against autonomous Black self-fashioning but also against the mobility and freedom of Black people at large within colonial society. And within this framework, the tignon can also be understood as a counter-hegemonic protest against these impositions.

Details

Appropriation and Influence

Woman in yellow tignon

François Fleischbein, Portrait of Betsy (Portrait of a Free Woman of Color), 1837

In this unique portrait, which is thought to depict the painter’s housekeeper, the sitter—known as “Betsy”—wears a yellow tignon, styled high atop her head, and decorated with a large rosette and an undulating frill at the crown of her head. She wears an elaborate high lace collar with a matching yellow bow and jeweled brooch at the center. This portrait provides us with a visual example of how the tignon’s intended purpose, as a signifier of inferiority and plainness, is in many ways antithetical to its re-signification and recontextualization as a symbol of autonomous Black self-fashioning, flamboyance, freedom, and status. 

Image: The Historic New Orleans Collection.