The tignon was the mandatory headwear for Creole women in Louisiana during the Spanish colonial period, and the style was adopted throughout the Caribbean island communities as well. This headdress was required by Louisiana laws in 1785. Called the "tignon laws," they prescribed appropriate public dress for females of color in colonial society, where some women of color & some white women tried to outdo each other in beauty, dress, ostentation and manners.
In an effort to maintain class distinctions & the social hierarchy in his Spanish colony at the beginning of his term, Governor Esteban Rodriguez Miró (1785 - 1791) decreed that women of color, slave or free, should cover their heads with a knotted headdress and refrain from "excessive attention to dress."In 1786, while Louisiana was a Spanish colony, the governor forbade: "females of color ... to wear plumes or jewelry"; this law specifically required "their hair bound in a kerchief." But the women, who were targets of this decree, were inventive & imaginative with years of practice. They decorated their mandated tignons, made of the finest textiles, with jewels, ribbons, & feathers to once again outshine their white counterparts.
In the above portrait of Marie Laveaux of New Orleans, Marie was depicted wearing a tignon. A tignon is a series of headscarves or a large piece of material tied or wrapped around the head to form a kind of turban resembling a West African gélé.
During the 19C, Marie Leveau (d. 1881), a devoted Catholic known as the Voodoo Queen, was generally a feared figure in New Orleans. Though apparently adept with Voodoo charms & potions of all kinds, Marie's real power came from her extensive network of spies & informants. The New Orleans elite had the careless habit of detailing their most confidential affairs to their slaves & servants, who then often reported to Marie out of respect & fear. As a result, Marie appeared to have an almost amazing knowledge of the workings of political & social power in New Orleans, which she used to build her power as a voodoo priestess.
A New Orleans journalist reported on a "voodoo rite" that he witnessed in 1828. "Some sixty people were assembled, each wearing a white bandana carefully knotted around the head..." At a given moment in the ceremony, one of the women "tore the white hand- kerchief from her forehead. This was a signal, for the whole assembly sprang forward and entered the dance"
Anthony Meucci (fl in America, 1818-1827) Juliet Noel (Mrs Pierre Toussaint)
Extramarital relationships between French & African settlers, occurring since slaves arrived in New Orleans about 1719, had evolved into an accepted social practice. The custom of freeing the children of such unions; the right of slaves to purchase their freedom; the policy of liberating enslaved workers for excellent service; and the arrival of free people of color from Haiti, Cuba & other Caribbean colonies led to the rise of a vocal free black population.
Through inheritance, military service, and a near monopoly of certain skilled trades, free blacks acquired wealth & social status. By the time Thomas Jefferson arranged for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans free blacks constituted nearly 20% of the city, while enslaved Africans comprised about 38% of the residents. Women of color, slave & free, continued to wear their bright tignons well into the 19th century, and they continued to attract the attention of men regardless of class or color.
1786 Francois Beaucourt, Portrait of Servant Woman.
Throughout the 19C, tignon was a local, New Orleans word for the headwrap, a variation on the French word, chignon which refers to a smooth knot or twist or arrangement of hair that is worn at the nape of the neck.
1796 Thomas Rowlandson. Rachel Pringle of Barbados. Published by William Holland (London, 1796)
Elsewhere in America, headwraps were often referred to as kerchiefs by both African Americans & others.
Women of Santo Domingo in Tignons.
The anonymous Mississippi planter who wrote "Management of Negroes Upon Southern Estates" (1851) noted: "I give to my negroes four full suits of clothes with two pairs of shoes, every year, & to my women and girls a calico dress and two handkerchiefs extra"
Woman Wearing Red Tignon with Bag of Laundry.
In 1863, E. Botume described the people who greeted her boat as it docked at Beaufort, SC, "Some of the women had...bits of sailcloth for head handkerchiefs"
19C Tignon Wearing Women of Color.
Charlie Hudson, born in 1858, & enslaved in Georgia, remembered: "What yo' wore on yo' haid was a cap made out of scraps of cloth dey wove in de loom..."
Market Woman in Tignon Selling Fruits & Vegetables.
Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, a northerner who traveled in the South before the American Civil War, tells of yet another way in which blacks acquired headwraps: "(The negroes) also purchase clothing for themselves, and, I note especially, are well supplied with handkerchiefs, which the men frequently, and the women nearly always, wear on their heads"
19th Century Mulatto Women and Tignons.
A Savannah editor bemoaned the "extravagant" dress of city blacks. Wade says that the journalist, " observing that a turban or handkerchief for the head was good enough for peasants,...noted that 'with our city colored population the old fashioned turban seems fast disappearing' " (Savannah Republican 6 June 1849)
19C Caribbean Island Women in Tignons.
Louis Hughes, born 1843, enslaved in Mississippi and Virginia, noted: "The cotton clothes worn by both men and women (house servants), and the turbans of the latter, were snowy white" After the family moved to the city, Hughes recalled, "Each of the women servants wore a new gay colored turban, which was tied differently from that of the ordinary servant, in some fancy knot"
19C New Orleans Tignon
In the Slave Narratives, Ebenezer Brown, enslaved in Mississippi, said: "(My mammy) wrap her hair, and tie it up in a cloth. My mammy cud tote a bucket of water on her head and never spill a drop. I seed her bring that milk in great big buckets from de pen on her head an' never lose one drop."
19C Portrait of Woman with Tignon. Historic New Orleans
John Dixon Long, a white observer, remarked on a prayer-meeting held by enslaved people in Maryland in 1857. "At a given signal...the women will tighten their turbans, and the company will then form a circle around the singer..."
1840 House Servant with Tignon. Louisiana
Louis Hughes, born 1832, enslaved in Mississippi and Virginia, remembered "once when Boss went to Memphis and brought back a bolt of gingham for turbans for the female slaves...red & yellow check...to be worn on Sundays"
1844 Adoph Rinck. Possibly a portrait of Marie Laveaux.
In 1863, Fanny Kemble's description of the slaves on her husband's Georgia plantation included: "head handkerchiefs, that put one's very eyes out from a mile off..."
1910 Woman in Tignon, Ellsworth Woodward Louisiana