Tignon Law: Policing Black Women’s Hair in the 18th Century

During the 1970s in the United States, there was a movement among Black women and men to wear their hair in its natural form, celebrating every curl and kink. It was an expression of self-love, a rejection of the Eurocentric beauty standards that had policed black hair and deemed it as ‘unattractive’ or ‘unprofessional’. The policing of black hair in the United States is not new, and an example of this is the tignon laws from the 1700s in Louisiana.

The tignon laws were passed in 1786 by Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró and aimed to prohibit ‘creole women of color from displaying excessive attention to dress in the streets of New Orleans’. The law stipulated that they must wear a tignon (a type of head covering) or scarf to cover up their hair. To understand how the tignon laws came to be, one must first understand the history and culture of Louisiana during the 18th century. Louisiana was a French colony from 1682 to 1763, then became a Spanish colony from 1763 to 1801. When it became a Spanish colony, Spanish laws were put into place that drastically impacted the lives of the enslaved people in Louisiana. Under Spanish rule, enslaved people under ‘coartacion’ could buy back their freedom. While the majority of the slaves could not benefit from this, some enslaved people were able to buy their freedom. This led to the growth of the free Black population in Louisiana enabling them to build wealth. By 1800, the free Black population had grown to 1500, which in turn impacted the culture and society of Louisiana.

One of the ways it impacted society was that it led to a significant rise of interracial relationships. Furthermore, women of African descent during this period explored their style, adorning their hair with jewels and feathers. Their elaborate hairstyles were so enchanting and regal, it exuded the image of wealth. These changes in the culture and fabric of society were seen as a threat to the social order in Louisiana. Historian Virginia M. Gould notes in her book, “The Devil’s Lane: Sex & Race in the Early South” that the governor was hoping that it would control women ‘who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.” The tignon laws were not just in response to the elaborate styles but also because mixed race creole women were seen as creating a threat to the status of white women by attracting more white men. In Lisa Ze Winters book, “The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic,” Winters notes, ‘scholars have also examined how the tignon bando and sumptuary laws across the Americas like it were not so much about the ostentatious vanity of free women of color but rather about the problem of maintaining the racial economy of slavery.’ Thus, the tignon laws were put into place.

Gould notes in her book, that “the tignon laws were intended to return the free women of color, visibly and symbolically, to the subordinate and inferior status associated with slavery.” The tignon laws, however, did not have the impact that governor Miró had hoped for. While they were meant to make free women of color drab, and act as a class signifier, these women instead turned the tignons into statements, styling them also with jewels and feathers, and picking bright eye-catching fabrics. They were still expressing themselves in the way they wanted in resistance to the law. The United States took control of Louisiana, and the tignon laws were abandoned but enslaved, and free women of African descent continued to wear them as a sign of resistance. The popularity of the tignon is seen with Marie Laveau, one of the most famous women from New Orleans, who in her time was known as ‘the priestess of Voodoo’ often wore headwraps.

This was not the only law that was put in place to restrict the clothing of free women of color. In 1776, a law was passed in Saint-Domingue that prohibited free women of color from wearing shoes. Like the tignon law, it did not have the impact that was intended. Free women of color from Saint -Domingue instead started to wear sandals and would put diamonds and jewels on their toes. They continued to do so even after the laws were not in place.

Head wraps and headdresses continue to be popular and worn by Black women to this day. It is an example of taking what was meant to diminish Black women and turning it into a powerful statement that is viewed as a symbol of resistance, of pride, and the celebration of culture.

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