Du-rags are polyester head coverings intended to protect hairstyles during sleep. Du-rags gained in popularity during the 1940's and 1950's when hair straightening treatments became available for Black Americans. The texture of African-American hair made it difficult to maintain the styles of the time, but the du-rag allowed them the same styles of their white counterparts. A small piece of polyester helps maintain waves and give processed hairstyles a longer shelf life.
In popular culture, the du-rag is popular among Black Americans, but the history of the du-rag traces back to Africa and China. Mostly used by Black men today, the du-rag began as a convenient way for women to set their hair in particular styles. During the 1930's, women affixed du-rags to keep hairstyles of the day fresh. From the 1940's and on, when Black Americans began processing their hair, du-rags became a staple for Black men to keep hair styled during the night.
Throughout history the du-rag has served to keep hairstyles in place during sleep, setting, and work. During the 1940's when more women were entering the workforce, du-rags became a necessity for Rosie the Riveters. (This iconic term is used to describe the more than 6 million women who worked during World War II.) Today, even motorcyclists use du-rags under the helmet to keep hair from blowing in their faces while they ride. Du-rags are used commonly by Black men to keep their hair wavy, or to prevent braids from losing their structure.
Today's du-rag is made mostly of polyester, however throughout history du-rags have come in a wide variety of fabrics. From the silk du-rags of Latin America to the cotton bandanas worn by Rosie the Riveters in the 1940's, the du-rag come in all types. Du-rags have become so popular that they are now available in a wide variety of colors, almost like an accessory. The polyester du-rag has proven most effective as it allows African-American hair to breathe while keeping the style in tact. Du-rags are made from a long piece of fabric to cover the length of the head plus a few inches, with long ties near the ears so the wearer can tie the du-rag to ther desired tightness.
The biggest misconception about the du-rag is that it serves more of a style purpose than a functional one. Although du-rags are available in a wide selection of colors, they do provide African-American hair with an easy to maintain complicated hairstyles. Although some du-rag users wear them all day long, it is meant to maintain a hairstyle or to achieve a wavy hairdo for short-haired Black men.
The du-rag is significant because it illustrates how the joining of styles and cultures evolve over time. Many people have a negative stereotype of individuals who wear du-rags, but by understanding the history of the du-rag, it's clear that it was never intended to serve as a gang identifier or a way for rappers to accessorize. The unique history of the du-rag reminds us that fashion, like history has a way making the old, new again.