How the Tignon Laws backfired

Words: Maxine Harrison

Black hair textures have long been the subject of discrimination, and on a global scale. The Tignon Laws, which were passed in Louisiana in 1786, while it was under Spanish control, prohibited the wearing of Black female hairstyles in public. But Black women took that restriction and used it in a way that backfired against the establishment that had passed it: a rebellion that lives on in hair fashion today.

Black hair textures are incredibly versatile. From afros to braids, there are a plethora of looks that Black hair is uniquely suited for. In Louisiana, innovative hairstyles on both free and enslaved Black women would often draw attention from white men, and white women started to get jealous. Countless academics have written about the historic oversexualisation of Black women – it was this view of Black women as competitors for white sexual attention led to the creation of the Tignon Laws.

A quick explainer on tignons: a tignon is a type of head covering. Pronounced ‘tiyon’, the etymology of the word is French, stemming from ‘chignon’ (which is still used today to refer to an arrangement of hair at the nape of the neck), and ‘tignasse’ (meaning an unkempt mop of hair). A tignon is a large piece of material wrapped around hair to create a turban-style look. 

In 1786, Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miro of New Orleans passed the law to defuse what was perceived as the attempted social climbing of Black women, and in that, to ensure the maintenance of the class and racial status-quo. 

Black women did not despair. Instead, they started to use their tignons as an expression of creativity, replacing the fashions that had previously been displayed in hairstyles. Tignons quickly became a statement: the vibrant red, blue and yellow colours of the fabric used made them stand out even more, and their headdresses would be decorated with jewels, ribbons and other accessories. 

Children are still expelled from school because of their Black hair; in 2019, some US states were forced to go as far as passing the Crown Act to stop natural hair discrimination.

The fashion quickly spread to neighbouring countries, particularly Caribbean islands like Martinique and Dominica, even though there were no laws there prohibiting the presentation of Black hair. Wearing particular fabrics and colours could even be used to communicate hidden messages: enslaved women in Suriname, in South America, used a headscarf that became known as Angisa which could be made with different patterns and wrapped in different ways to convey a particular meaning. Many of these meanings were proverbial: ‘I am a grown woman in my own house, I can do as I please’, or ‘hold your tongue’. 

The Tignon Laws went out of effect in the 1800s, after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase – but the discrimination that the women who tied the first tignons resisted lives on. Hair textures with a closer proximity to whiteness are today pedestalled by Western beauty standards: long, flowing locks are the feminine ideal, while afro hair textures in their natural form – particularly those with tighter kinks and curls – are often seen as unkempt. Children are still expelled from school because of their Black hair; in 2019, some US states were forced to go as far as passing the Crown Act to stop natural hair discrimination. A campaign called the Halo Collective has been set up to combat hair discrimination in the UK, too. 

The story of the Tignon Laws also comes into play in how we approach questions of cultural appropriation. ‘Cultural appropriation’ is not a catch-all term for discrimination: it describes the process by which elements of historical Black culture (or other cultures) are perceived as better when employed by white people. Miro’s legislation places this process in important context – one which shows that displays of Blackness by Black people have historically been seen as at best presumptuous, and at worst, criminal. 

But it’s not all bad. The defiance of the Tignon laws demonstrated a creativity that remains a key part of Black culture today the world over. Many Black women still use headdresses – or as they’re commonly referred to now, headwraps – as a hair style. Different prints and materials are used for different events and fashions. This story is an inspiring one of oppression meeting resistance, and of an urge to self-expression that could not and would not be stopped.

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Maxine is a freelance writer with a niche in Black hair. She has a blog dedicated to helping freelance creatives build their business and lifestyle, which also hosts a Beginner Freelancer E-course.