Did the elaborate hairstyles of married women from 1890-1940 influence the dimensions of headrests used by the Zulu people to sleep on?

Answers are speculative, as documentation doesn’t exist, however, from a practical point of view, the question remains- Besides covering hair with a cloth, how did ladies at leisure protect their towering top Knots at night?zulu hair

zulu postcard

Headrests carved by Zulu men are characterized by the fact that they are larger than headrests made by other ethnic groups in Southern Africa, by having a longer horizontal bar. This could have allowed women to turn over easily while the pinnacle of the hair rested on the floor, without any drag on the roots at the scalp level.

One can only guess that these large hairstyles were high maintenance, requiring constant care to look their best and this would have included creative solutions for when they were in repose, and may have affected the shape of headrests. 

At the turn of the century, when a bride left to live with her husband, grass sleeping mats and a headrest carved by her father, often went with her. This could have meant that the maternal family had some sway in the customized headrest proportions. If the headrest was discarded, the head of the household would carve or commission another to be made.

The feet of headrests were generally post, pillar- like or wedge shaped to support this gently curved  bar.  Some have referred to the headrest as being indicative of a bovine shape, as cattle formed such a relevant feature in the life of Zulu people, and were also used in bride price.

In the 1950s, in some areas of Kwa Zulu Natal, the entire structure became a solid plinth like arrangement, without legs, altering this zoomorphic symbolism by being covered in geometric decoration.

There is no hard and fast rule to  headrest decoration and as it was an intimate object, carved and used generally in the seclusion of the hut, by the owner, it is logical that some carvers portrayed their own personal influences and concerns in the subject matter. However the proportions of these headrests were generally in contrast to the design of other ethnic groups headrests ie the Shona,

The reasons for the development of this difference has never been considered in literature about headrests, or they have been acknowledged as being specific to Zulu style, or attributed to the artistic license of particular artists. They were also thought to act as stools during the day..  However there may have been a more practical reason as to why this shape evolved over time.

zulu hair 2
photograph by A. Duggan Cronin

Zulu married women’s visual language, identity and pride for over a century have underpinned the significance of the Isicholo.large hair

The word isicholo was used to describe both the married woman’s traditional hairstyle, worn to show respect for her husband’s family and later applied to the hat worn to replace this hairstyle..

Isicholo and Zulu women are easily identifiable in photographs and postcards taken from the late 18th early 1900s in the Natal region. These images are either posed studio shots or present brief moments of their lives, captured by European photographers passing through the rural areas.

zulu d. cronin
photo by A. Duggan Cronin

Sometimes, these pics are more than novelty images or snaps of the exotic and are simply beautiful portraits of women recorded with sensitivity.  These black and white images whisper to us from an edited memory giving us a glimpse of real people in the rural ideal in pre-apartheid times .z. womaN and child

The isicholo hairstyles projected in a cone shape, diagonally away from the face, where they accentuated the cheekbones and elongated the form of the head. These aesthetic creations were a marker of Zulu married womens’ identity, status, self-esteem, feminine pride and fashion. They were ideally suited for the stately body language of women who held themselves with grace and poise, as did the elongated hats of the Egyptian Royalty from centuries ago. Or the more radical transformative styles of the Mangbetu people from the D.R.C, who with head-binding, practiced in infancy, changed the shape of the scull.

With Zulu women, this was not done, but rather the hair was grown out and put up into an elaborate style.zulu hats fab

At the same time, sticks carved by Zulu men in Natal sometimes illustrated heads with these hairstyles, at the apex of the staff.

The form of the topknot varied from region to region and these were constructed in slightly different ways,  discerned from oral history, made by lengthening human hair and stretching it over a wicker/grass frame. zulu duggan cronin

This was then secured with fiber or string.  Sometimes, but not always, these creations were daubing with red oxide, fat/wax…. The fat made the oxide adhere to the hair, made the style more manageable, and at the same time had a moisturising effect on the hair fibers.

c s l gazing woman
photograph by Constance.Stuart Larrabee

Historically, red oxide was used by most groups in Southern and East Africa to alter the colour and texture of hair. The colour of red oxide evokes blood. Initiates of the traditional healing fraternity in South Africa, still use red oxide in their hair today as a necessary mark of respect to their ancestors.  Other ethnic groups known for the application of oxide and fat to the hair are the Himba of Namibia, the Ntwane of South Africa and the Masaai of Kenya.


By the 1950s Zulu women’s hairstyles were reimagined and the head liberated. Due to innovation these top knots were cut off and the hairstyle became transformed into inverted conical hats, inkehli or isicholo made from human hair that could easily be removed at night. The advantage of this was it allowed a consistent form, without the necessity of incessant maintenance.

Later the concept of growing hair for the hat was discarded and substituted by weaving the form with fibre, grass, cotton or later string and and earplugs

A variety of hat styles were adopted in regional areas, coherent with the dress and beadwork of particular clans in that area, (or demonstrating affiliation for church groups like the Shembe).

In the Msinga and Nquthu area, hat styles were marked by simplicity and often unadorned. In Eshowe they had white beadwork radiating from the centre. In the valley of 1000 hills, they became covered with a variety of beaded shapes, in bright colours.

The frame or structure underlying the hat in some instances increased in dimension, or became blunt and flat on top. Or rounded like a large beret, or grew a short cylindrical form.

woman with water
Zulu woman carrying water


In the late 1950s the isicholo was enhanced with decorative features sometimes including beaded items, small gifts and found objects. Perhaps this developed out of the tradition at weddings to pin money to the bride’s isicholo.zulu hats9

Rectangular strips of beadwork masked the join or separation of the scalp and hat by being tied around the lower edge of the hat.  Headbands were known as umqhwazi and isembozo.

Beaded rosettes were attached to the sides or top. The hats three dimensionality, encouraged ingenious decorative solutions: Beaded strips positioned on the top of the hat were arranged like spokes of a wheel radiating outwards to the edges.

These were now seen either from behind or when women bent to pick up objects from the floor.  This change in perspective, by using the top of the hat, was something new, fresh and vital, injecting an energy and life, into Zulu costume and dress.

hats tyrrell
drawing by B.Tyrrell

Hairpins in 1900s were simple, elegant shapes mostly carved from wood, ivory and bone.

By the 1950/60s hairpins made of a wire frame, were twisted into different shapes sometimes triangular or clover or leaf shaped and beaded with coloured designs, becoming flamboyant additions.

wild zulu hat tyrrell

Sometimes men made the wire frame, so women could bead it. In effect a collaboration between the sexes. The floral forms of hairpins became reminiscent of a particular meeting, or event that had taken place near specific botanical species.

Thus hats in some areas, like Zwelimbowo, became a complex repository of memories – more of a “statement” and form of social commentary, like some beadwork.

h. dube
Hlengiwe Dube in a Zulu hat

Perhaps reaching their zenith during a project run by Phansi Museum shortly before the 2010 soccer work cup, where women where commissioned to express their aspiration and excitement for this event, producing the most extraordinary body of work, reaffirming the, skill and ingenuity of these South African bead workers.hats

Isicholos were worn by South African musicians, such as the late great Brenda Fassie and Miriam Makeba expressing their national pride.   Today they are as fashionable as ever, but they have changed, become a general handcraft industry, sold on the web, or particular outlets in urban areas. The underlying section is now covered in material, sometimes floral, without beading. Hats are sold in a variety of colours with several rows of stitching at the base.  They are worn to ceremonial occasions, the opening of parliament and weddings.  At weddings they are worn by brides and guests alike, thereby keeping traditions alive.

Much has been written about hair and hairstyles from the African continent, since the first exhibition of barber posters was held at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in 1994 raising interest in both the sculptural aspect of hair and the popular art of barber posters themselves.

Today in South Africa  hairstyle options have been influenced both by the technical wizardry of West African styling, adopted from the  migrant population,  and also contemporary fashioning from the celebrity culture in the U.S.A., with particular emphasis on the music industry.

Little Kim for one, has produced a dazzling array of hair and colour, metamorphosing from peroxide blond to sultry brunette, changing  hair length and colour with the release of each video.  In South Africa, this has given a freedom to experiment with imported Brazilian hair, multi coloured nylon extensions or wigs, embraced by local icons such as Khanyi Mbau amongst others.