Monday, April 29, 2013

Nigerian Gele Fashion

By Jenni Gate

In Nigeria, women’s fashion has included the gele, or head wrap, for at least 400 years, and most likely longer. It’s thought that in the days before slavery, head wraps were used as a display of wealth when worn by men, and a sign of social status and spirituality when worn by women. The word gele (pronounced gay-lay) is a Yoruba word used by people of southern Nigeria. Other regions of Nigeria also use head wraps. In Igbo culture, the word used for a head scarf is ichafu, The trend for women wearing head wraps has spread across Africa and is also a tradition being passed down in African American communities. A head wrap is not only beautiful, it can also cover a bad hair day, protect the head from the sun, and express creativity.

Browse through gele styles on Pinterest for stunning examples of the art:

Tying a gele has become an art form, and the Yoruba women tie them in the most flamboyant way. The Yoruba, especially, believe a gele makes even an ordinary woman look like a queen. They can be tall, turban-like, intricate, or simply elegant. Geles have become a necessary part of a woman’s outfit for social occasions such as weddings, christenings, funerals, even birthday parties. Because a poorly tied gele can ruin an outfit, there are gele specialists in Nigeria, similar to celebrity hairdressers in the US and Europe, who are known for their fantastic head-wrapping skills. Traditionally, the hair is completely covered by the wrap, leaving just the face exposed. Modern styles often leave a strand or two of hair at the side of the face, or hair gathered to spill out of the back. Prices for tying a gele can range from the equivalent of a few dollars to several hundred for popular gele masters. In Houston, Nigerian Segun Otaleye, also known as Segun Gele, offers tying classes and personal appointments commanding $650 for brides and their wedding party plus $1,000 or more for special occasions outside the Houston area.

Watch Segun Gele work his magic here:

The wrap, one-half to one yard in length, is usually folded in half lengthwise several times until it is about 6 inches wide. The longer the fabric, the larger the head wrap will be. The fabric is wrapped around the head and tied into a knot under the hair at the base of the neck. Depending on the length, the design may start with the middle at the nape of the neck and the ends first tied at the top of the head. The ends are pulled up and wrapped, sometimes twisted and tucked into the folds at the top of the head or tied into a bow at the side. A gele master can wrap and tie various shapes and textures into the design. Professional designs can be formed into a fan, hat, flower, or other shapes. The end result may even look like a dish or beehive.

The fabrics used to make a gele are called aso-oke. The best materials to make a gele are usually stiff, such as damask, taffeta, cotton, or thickly-woven silk. Lace and velvet and other fabrics can also be used, sometimes as a secondary fabric adorning the gele. Colors are bright, reflecting the personality of the wearer.

To see how popular the gele is in Nigeria, watch this video:

The satellite dish analogy is somehow apt to so many of these designs. From the simple to the ornate, they are stylish and fun.


  1. Jenni,this brought back so many memories. I admired the beautiful head dresses the Nigerian women wore. They would choose such bright colors and use very intricate knot. I remember seeing a mother unwrap a layer of her headdress and use it to sling her baby onto her back. She still had a beautiful wrap for her head and baby was safely strapped onto her back.

  2. That's a great memory, Susie! I remember the fantastic head dresses also. I don't think they were quite as ornate or high fashion as they are today, but they were still impressive. Thanks for sharing the memory!

  3. Thanks, Jenni. Really interesting. I lived in Senegal and Ivory Coast and, while I loved the cloth and the outfits, the headscarves were nothing like this. Wow. Amazing how creativity flourishes in any medium whatsoever.

  4. Isn't it? I absolutely love some of the colors and the fabrics. I know in other parts of Africa, there are head scarves, but no one seems to do it like the Nigerians do. So many looks from basically a rectangular piece of fabric.

  5. What a fun post! I lived in Ghana for 9 years and loved the beautiful head wraps and the regal way women would wear their traditional dress.

    1. So sorry I missed this earlier. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I've always wanted to go to Ghana.