Christine Brown on “Textiles for the Head, Part 2”

On June 14, 2014, Christine Brown gave a Rug and Textile Appreciation Morning program that was Part 2 of her work on “Textiles for the Head.”


If you have not seen Part 1 of this sequence, you can find it here:

In Part 1, Christine discussed how cloth is used on the head in different cultures to conceal and protect, reveal and adorn, and convey status and authority.  Christine’s research on this subject yielded more than could be included in one program.  Part 2 presents some of the additional material.  What follows is her lecture text interspersed with illustrating images.  



Today’s presentation will be a continuation of one I gave in December 2013 during which I talked about some of the many purposes for which textiles are placed on the head. It was a wide-ranging overview, drawing on examples from many different cultures on several continents.

Today, I want to focus on a special type of headress–those made to resemble animals, or parts of animals. We will be looking at examples of cloth headdresses created to symbolize or resemble large mammals, birds, and reptiles.

To avoid mistakes in terminology and mangling the pronunciations, I will use generic English terms to describe the objects we will be looking at today.  

Let’s start by revisiting one of the images I showed in December.


[Photo, Ao, Pg. 47]

This headdress belongs to a male member of the Chang subgroup of Nagas living in the state of Nagaland in northeast India. The Naga believe that certain objects are imbued with inherent power. Animal teeth, horns, and claws are considered particularly powerful. Hornbill feathers are also revered. 

The hat shown here is made of plaited cane and yellow orchid fiber, and is adorned with a hornbill feather, bear fur, the horns of a semi-domesticated bison (mithun), and a tiger claw chin strap. These body parts were taken from actual animals and birds and were attached to a hat worn by a man who had earned the right to wear it by successfully completing prescribed tasks, for example, participating in a successful raid or giving a feast.

Today, we will look at examples of headdresses made of textiles and other materials that were created to look like animals or animal parts. The people wearing these cloth headdresses believe that they symbolize or embody attributes of the animals in much the same way as the headdresses with actual body parts do.

First are headdresses that look like buffalo horns.



[Map, Anawalt, Pg. 285]

The Minangkabau ethnic group lives in the province of West Sumatra on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, as seen in this map. The name Minangkabau consists of two words: Minang, derived from menang, means victorious; kabau means buffalo.

The Minangkabau are known for a type of weaving called songket, in which motifs are formed by a supplementary weft weave of gold- or silver-wrapped threads in a ground weave of silk or cotton. Songket fabric is used for hip, shoulder, and head cloths, for Minangkabau men and women.



[Photo, Brinkgreve & Stuart-Fox, Pg.79]

Some groups of Minangkabau women traditionally wear their songket head cloths folded to resemble the horns of a water buffalo, as seen here.

The shape of the horns varies by village. In some, they are rounded, as seen here; in others, they are very pointed, as we will see in a minute.

According to Anne and John Summerfield, co-authors of a book entitled, Walk in Splendor: Ceremonial Dress and the Minangkabau, this horn headdress is linked to an early Minangkabau chronicle, which goes like this:

QUOTE “…the name Minangkabau originated from a historical event, a buffalo fight that took place when a prince from Java came to West Sumatra to expand his political authority. Because the people of [West Sumatra] did not have a strong army . . . , they proposed a buffalo fight to determine who would rule. The prince agreed. . . and found a big, strong buffalo. The Minangkabau chose a baby buffalo, which they did not feed the day before the contest. . . The Minangkabau tied sharp iron spikes to the baby buffalo’s nose. When the [two] buffalo encountered each other, the baby buffalo ran to the big buffalo, thinking it was its mother. Trying to nurse, it slashed the belly of the big buffalo with the iron spikes. The big buffalo died; the prince from Java lost the contest and withdrew.”END QUOTE

The wearing of cloth headdresses folded to resemble water buffalo horns is a direct reference to Minangkabau resourcefulness and their David and Goliath-type victory as described in the chronicle.



[Photo, Summerfield, Pg. 148]

Here is a second example of a horn headdress. The horns are pointed and the fabric is draped so that the decorated end panels are visible on either side of the head.



[Photo, Brinkgreve & Stuart-Fox, Pg.67]

Here is an archival photo dating to ca. 1918 showing women wearing headdresses tied in the horn shape typical of another village.

Let’s look now at another type of animal headdress–one resembling  an elephant head and trunk.



[Map of West Africa, Internet]

The central African country of Cameroun is seen in the left-hand map colored in gold. The country outline on the right shows its unusual shape, which to me looks like a bird or chicken. The district highlighted in the tan color is where the Grasslands region is located. The headdress we will be looking at next is worn by the Bamileke ethnic group, which resides in this area.

Bamileke society is highly stratified and hierarchically organized. Male members possessing the required rank and wealth become members of men’s associations or societies.



[Photo, Van Cutsem, Pg. 50]

Members of at least two of these societies wear elephant masks like the one seen here as their principal ceremonial regalia. For the Bamileke, an elephant embodies force and power and its tusks constitute a highly valued trade commodity.

The elephant mask comprises a cap-like head covering, two large circular ear flaps, and two long, rectangular panels, one that hangs in front of the wearer and one that hangs behind. You will be able to see the back panel in the next slide. The mask represents an elephant’s ears, eyes, trunk, and mouth with teeth—not tusks. The red triangles represent the teeth. Even though the panel represents an elephant’s trunk, there is also a red nose just above the mouth and between the eyes.

The ground cloth is either dark blue or red, as seen in this example, and is backed with burlap.

The mask is adorned with small glass beads, called seed beads because of their small size. These beads were produced in Italy and Czechoslovakia in the 19th century, were brought in to many parts of Africa, and were used as a medium of exchange in the trade of valuable commodities. The seed beads are sewn on in geometric patterns, with white as the dominant color. The accumulation of beads on these elephant masks is an indicator of the wearer’s wealth.



[Photo, Northern, Pgs. 34 and 35]

The beaded designs on the front and back panels can be the same or different, as seen in these two black and white images. The image on the left shows the design on the front; the one on the right shows the back. The patterns are different but complementary. Note that the cloth and beadwork on the backs of the ears have been lost through use, which affords a glimpse of how the ears are constructed. They resemble the flat, woven grass covers often placed on wide-mouthed clay pots to keep flies and insects out.



[Photo, Northern, Pg. 7]

This photo was taken at a funeral celebration in 1913. You can see various men wearing elephant masks.  Some extend to the wearers’ waists, some a bit lower. Some of the masks are worn alone; others are worn together with a tall hat. The hat has a flared, basketwork crown that is covered with beads on a cloth base.



[Photo, Northern, Pg. 44]

Here is a photo of the crown of a tall hat covered in geometric beadwork. It is unfortunate that I could only find a black and white photo—this would be stunning if it was in color.



[Photo, Northern, Pg. 7]

I want to go back to this photo for a minute because it shows two other animal headdresses being worn. One is a wooden buffalo face mask worn by the man seated on the ground in front.

Standing just behind him is a man wearing a leopard headdress. If you look closely, you can see the leopard’s head, four legs, and tail mounted on a dark headband.



[Photo, Northern, Pg. 37]

It probably looked much like this example. I could not find a description of how this type of headdress is created. It looks like the ground cloth, probably cotton, is stretched over, or stuffed with, something that creates the leopard shape.  Beads are sewn on to represent the eyes, ears, spots, etc. The legs of the leopard are attached to a wide headband and the stiff tail curls behind.

The Bamileke believe the leopard, like the elephant, embodies force and power and is a master of its environment. These are qualities that the wearer of the headdress wishes to possess or emulate.

Let’s look at headdresses resembling birds.



[Map, Internet]

Staying in Africa, we’re going to look at another type of beaded headdress from the Yoruba people in the country of Nigeria, which borders Cameroon to the west. Cameroun is in gold; Nigeria is just to the left, shown in green. The Yoruba live in the southwestern part of the country bordering the country of Benin to the west.

Among the Yoruba, beads are associated with royalty and the priesthood. The Yoruba are ruled by a number of kings and lesser rulers, each of whom possess multiple beaded crowns and other regalia. According to British archaeologist and curator Margaret Carey in her book, Beads and Beadwork of West and Central Africa, Yoruba crowns dating back to the 18th century were of simple design—caps covered with cowrie shells.



[Photo, Biebuyck & Van den Abbeele, Pg. 63]

Over time, as seen here, the crowns became conical, and adorned with birds, faces, and geometric designs, including the endless knot, which is seen here.

According to one source, birds symbolize the Yoruba kings’ communication with the gods through magical flight. There can be just one bird on the top, as seen here, or one on the top and others on the sides. The crowns often have one or more faces on the sides, and a beaded fringe that screens the king’s face from public view. According to Carey, when the king’s face is hidden behind a bead fringe, he is no longer a man but a god; his feet must not touch the ground, so he wears beaded footwear and uses a beaded footstool.



[Photo, Drewal and Mason, Pg. 58]

Here is a photo showing a Yoruba ruler wearing a beaded, conical crown with a bird on top and what looks like feathers, and a face on each side. He is wearing beaded shoes and has each foot on a beaded footstool.

The UCLA Fowler Museum catalogue entitled, Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head, describes how these later crowns are constructed.

QUOTE:  The conical crown begins as a palm-rib wickerwork or cardboard frame. Starched, unbleached muslin or stiffened cotton fabric is stretched over the form. Figures and designs in high relief shaped from pieces of cloth dipped in wet starch are attached to this basic form. Artists then string together beads of a single color to form a strand. Different colored strands are then tacked to the surface until the crown is completely covered.” END QUOTE

According to another Fowler Museum publication entitled, Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe, the head of a king or ruler must never be left uncovered once he has been installed in office. For formal occasions, he might wear a crown similar to the one shown above.  For daily wear and less formal occasions, rulers wear less elaborate headdresses in a variety of shapes that express the wearer’s taste, pretensions, allegiances, etc.



[Photo, Van Cutsem, Pg. 45]

Here is an example of a beaded cap surmounted by two chameleons. According to one source, in the Yoruba belief system, the chameleon represents exceptional power, probably relating to its ability to change color to protect itself in a dangerous situation.  The ruler wearing this headdress may wish to possess the same ability.

The construction of the cap is interesting.  It is covered with red beads in geometric patterns.  The lower and upper rims are marked by yellow beads.  There appears to be a circle of blue beads on the top center.  The bodies of the chameleons are covered in red beads and have blue mouths and eyes.  The blue eyes are outlined in white.  Notice how the beads are attached to the bodies–they are laid down vertically on the head, body, and tail, horizontally on the legs, with extra beads applied to the feet.

Let’s look now at another form of bird headdress–roosters.



[Map, Goodman, Pg. 14]

The Hani ethnic group live in the province of Yunnan in southern China. They are known as Akha in the countries of Burma, Thailand, and Laos. Those of you who attended my December presentation may remember the slides I showed of headdresses worn by different sub-groups of Akha and by young girls and women within the same sub-groups. Hani clothing and headdresses also vary by sub-group and age of the wearer.



[Photo, Van Cutsem, Pg. 132]

This is a cock’s comb hat worn by young Hani women and women from a neighboring ethnic group called the Yi.

The headdress is made of woven cotton that is covered with small, silver repousse flowers. Repousse is a technique wherein the silversmith hammers out a design from the back, resulting in the design being raised on the front. Two rows of metal flowers follow the outline of the headdress. The entire surface is covered in horizontal rows of flowers. The seam along the crest and the lower back is covered with larger flowers. The section in between is open.



[Photo, Writing with Thread, Pg. 398]

Here is a photo showing two young Hani women wearing cock’s comb headdresses.



[Photo, Internet]

Here is another photo I found on the web that shows the headdresses from the side.

According to the University of Hawai’i Art Gallery exhibition catalogue entitled, Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities, the shape of the hat derives from the following legend:

QUOTE:  Two young lovers were in the forest at night when the girl’s beauty became the desire of the forest devil. To possess his newfound passion, the devil killed the girl’s lover, but the girl ran to a neighboring village with the devil in pursuit.  As dawn broke, a rooster crowed and scared the devil away. Realizing that the cock was the woe of the devil, she took the rooster back to the forest to search for her slain lover. To her surprise, as the rooster crowed, her lover returned to life and they lived happily ever after. END QUOTE

The wearing of a cock’s comb hat by Hani and Yi women manifest their hope for protection and for aid in finding a good husband.



[Photo, Writing with Thread, Pg. 398]

Here is a particularly stunning example that also has a silver chain with beads and metal ornaments attached to it.

Let’s move further west and look at regional variations of a snake headdress.



[Map, Anawalt, Pg. 249]

This map shows the various countries located along the Himalayan mountain range in Asia. The type of headdress we will look at originated in western Tibet and was transported over time by migrating Tibetans to Nepal to the south and to the Ladakh district of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to the west.



[Photos, Beijing Publishing House, Pg. 32; Gabriel, Cover; and                          Clarke, Pg. 103]

This slide shows the original and two regional variations of a cobra headdress. The original Tibetan form is seen on the left; the Nepal variation, which is similar but different, is shown in the middle; the Ladakh version, which is probably the best known here in the West, is seen on the right. We will look at each of these in turn in a minute.

The basic shape of all three is similar and is meant to resemble a cobra. Oppi Untract, in his book, Traditional Jewelery of India, gives the following description of the Ladakhi variation that I believe applies equally well to all three:

QUOTE:  Embodied in the {headdress} is its religious symbolism. The typical {headdress} has a base about 39 inches (or one meter) long. . . When laid flat, its form suggests a snakeskin, which it represents. This idea is reinforced by its decoration and the manner in which {it} is worn. Draped over the top of a woman’s head, it projects forward over her forehead, like a cobra’s head, and increases in width like the cobra’s expanded hood. The rest of its body width diminishes and hangs down the back, tapering to a pointed tail. When a woman stands, the {headdress} takes on the position of a rearing cobra poised to strike. In Hindu and Buddhist iconography, the cobra with expanded hood is frequently represented hovering protectively over the head of a deity image. The {headdress} figuratively offers protection to the wearer.       END QUOTE

Let’s start with the original Tibetan version.



[Photo, Beijing Publishing House, Pg. 32]

Women in western Tibet wear this headdress in pairs–one on the head and one draped over the right shoulder as seen in the photo. The wing-shaped section of each is adorned with horizontal rows of pearls, turquoise, and other items interspersed. You can see this best on the one worn over the shoulder of the woman on the left.

Each of  the headdresses has from 12 to 15 strands of beads that hang down in front of the wearer’s face. The strands are threaded through metal spacers that end with metal chains and heart-shaped metal discs. The strands are about six inches long. Depending on how the headdress is positioned, the strands will cover the forehead (as with the two women at right) or hang down below the nose (as with the woman on the left).



[Photo, Costumes and Ornaments, Pg. 55]

Each headdress has temple pendants that hang on either side of the woman’s face. A metal spacer is hooked to each wing of the headdress. Three or more strands of coral, another metal spacer, two or three turquoise pendants, and other beads hang well below the woman’s shoulders. Note that the temple pendants are in addition to the woman’s earrings. Also note the cord attached to the headdress, going behind her ear and beneath her hair. It will be tied to a similar cord from the other side underneath her hair.

This woman and the three in the previous photo are all wearing a wide cloth collar studded with horizontal rows of coral, vertical lines of turquoise, and metal plaques. Remember this collar when we look at variations of the cobra headdress in Nepal and Ladakh.



[Photo, Beijing Publishing House, Pg. 30]

In the photo above, you can see the two thin cords used to attach the headdress behind the wearer’s ears, as we saw in the last photo.   The two thicker cords are used to attach the coral collar.



[Photo, Beijing Publishing House, Pg. 30]

[Double click on image No. H28 above to better to see the horizontal rows of large turquoise chunks, metal plaques, and other items adorning these headdresses.]

Before we look at how this headdress evolved in Nepal and Ladakh, keep in mind two unique characteristics of the Tibetan version:

(1) the headdresses are worn in pairs–one on the head; one over the right shoulder; and
(2) the two are worn together with a coral collar.


Tibetans who have migrated to Nepal over the last millennium are referred to as Tibeto-Nepalese. They live primarily along the border between Tibet and northern Nepal.



[Photo, Gabriel, dust jacket]

The headdress (ganjung) worn by these Tibeto-Nepalese women is very similar in shape to the one worn in Tibet. They both:

• Are jewel-studded, flat pieces of leather that cover the head and trail down the woman’s back;
• Are roughly triangular in shape with the points extending out far beyond the temples;
• Have multiple strands of beads ending in metal, heart-shaped discs that hang over the forehead; and
• Have temple pendants suspended from the headdress.


[Photo, Gabriel, Pg. 117]

They both have bands of ornamentation down the length of the headdress:

  •  The top section has horizontal rows of freshwater pearls sewn on from tip to tip.  There is also a row of brass conical elements.
  •  Subsequent sections alternate between multiple, horizontal rows of turquoise and metal plaques made of silver or brass and ornamented with repousee Buddhist motifs.

Despite their similarity, there are at least three major differences between the Tibet and Nepal headdresses.



[Photos, Beijing Publishing House, Pg. 32; Gabriel, Cover]

Here are the two versions. The Tibet version is on the left; the Nepal version is on the right. The differences are:

(1) The Tibetan woman is wearing two headdresses:  one on her head, one over her right shoulder.  The Nepali woman is wearing only one–on her head.
(2) The Tibetan woman is wearing a coral collar.  The Nepali woman is not. And,
(3) The Tibetan woman has one set of temple pendants framing  her face.  The Nepali woman has two sets of temple pendants: one comprised of strands of coral and metal spacers hanging close to her face; and a second set of silver triangular pendants and chains hanging from the widest point on either side of the headdress.

Lest anyone becomes overly confident in believing that they can distinguish between the Tibet and Nepal headdresses, I should point out that there are multiple variations of the headdresses in different parts of Nepal and Ladakh.



[Photo, Gabriel, Pg. 118]

Here is one variation (shyule) worn in the Mustang region of northwestern Nepal. It is made of a strip of multi-layered red cloth that lies on the woman’s hair part and extends down her back. It is adorned with large chunks of turquoise and rectangular, repousee silver and gold plaques. Unlike the other variations of this headdress, no coral is attached to this one.


Ladakh was an independent Buddhist country until 1834 when it was annexed by the Hindu rulers of Jammu. It is now a district in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and its capital city is Leh.



[Photos, Clarke, Pg. 103]

Above are front and back views of one style of Ladakh headdress. There are major differences between this Ladakh headdress and the Tibet and Nepal headdresses we looked at earlier.  These include:

• The large lappets (tsaru) worn at the sides of the head.
• The coral collar worn around the neck by Tibetan women is here transformed into an attachment to the headdress.
• The turquoise chunks are sewn on in vertical lines rather than horizontal rows.

Let’s talk about each of these in turn.




[Photo, Untracht, Pg. 150]

The ear-shaped lappets are made of black woolen cloth and are edged, or completely covered, with black astrakhan lambskin or brown otter skin. Their primary purpose is to support ornaments hooked onto them like those shown here.

The headdress and lappets together provide protection from the cold as they cover the head and much of the back.


The coral collar worn in Tibet is laid flat and attached to the side of the headdress in Ladakh. Starting about shoulder level on the left side, there is a horizontal, silver spacer bar holding five to ten strands of coral beads. The vertical strands are punctuated with horizontal lines of turquoise, just like the Tibetan collar. The coral beads gradually decrease in size, with the largest at the top and the smallest at the bottom. Ideally, the strands extend from the shoulder to the end of the headdress, as seen here.


The largest and best stone is usually placed at the very front point where it will be easily seen, followed by the next best, and so on. An amulet box (gau) made of silver or gold and inlaid with semiprecious stones is often placed near the front, as shown.

Ideally, the entire surface of the headdress should be covered with turquoise stones. The red felt base should only show around the perimeter. The turquoise pieces are either pierced and sewn on, or glued, to the base. Between 100 and 400 stones are arranged in vertical lines, and weigh as much as three kilos (almost seven pounds). The stones are not polished or shaped. Their value stems from their large size and quality.

The number of vertical lines of turquoise is an indicator of financial status. A headdress having only three lines indicates a woman with few financial resources. A headdress with five is a status symbol in rural villages. One with seven or more lines is a status symbol in Leh. In pre-colonial times, Ladakhi queens wore nine-line headdresses with a golden brooch in the middle. These lines of turquoise could be extended or shortened as a family’s fortunes fluctuated. If they needed money, they could sell one or more pieces. If they had extra cash, they could add a piece.

One other element of the Ladakhi headdress is the woolen braids that are gathered together just below the bottom of the headdress.

Turquoise-covered headdresses are worn in most areas of Ladakh with variations in shape, ornaments, and the number of turquoise lines. Let’s look at one variation.



[Photo, Ahmed, Pg. 57]

In central Ladakh, the headdress is pointed at the front, like the examples we have been looking at and as shown here on the two women on the right.

In the northeastern plateau area, the front of the headdress is straight rather than pointed, like the one worn by the woman on the left. The horizontal placement of the turquoise contrasts with the vertical placement on the other two, which makes it look more like the Tibet and Nepal versions.

That is my last slide, but I am delighted to say that I was able to borrow a beautiful example of a Ladakhi headdress for us to look at during show-and-tell.


We looked at a number of headdresses today that were created to resemble or symbolize animals, birds, and reptiles.  As I mentioned at the outset, people wearing these cloth headdresses do so because they believe that the headdresses symbolize or embody attributes of the animals in much the same way as those headdresses adorned with actual body parts.  

Just as with the headdresses discussed in Part 1 of my talk last December, those we looked at today serve multiple purposes.  In addition to embodying the attributes of the animals represented, the headdresses also do one or more of the following:

  • Reveal the wearer’s ethnicity, distinctive subgroup, and geographic location;
  • Communicate personal achievement;
  • Project power and authority;
  • Attract good fortune;
  • Deflect danger; and
  • Indicate economic status.

Thank you.

Some head textiles had been brought in and Christine treated them next.



A Ladakh cobra headdress with lappets and attached braids, vertical rows of turquoise, a silver amulet box (gau) topped with a piece of coral, and rows of cowrie shells at the lower tip.



A close-up view.



Three examples of plaited bamboo hats from Bhutan.


An inside look at the three Bhutan hats.



A woman’s hood adorned with beadwork in geometric patterns from the border area between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.


C6 is examined by audience members.



A woman’s head covering (odhni) from India.

Christine took questions and closed her program.

Thanks to her for these two solid programs on “Textiles for the Head.”  Thanks, too, for her permission to have this virtual version fashioned and for her editorial help in doing so.

R. John Howe

If you have happened on to Part 2 without seeing Part 1, you can see the latter at this link:

Christine has provided a bibliography:


Ahmed, Monisha and Clare Harris, 2005. Ladakh: Culture at the Crossroads, Marg Publications, Mumbai, India.

Anawalt, Patricia Rieff, 2007. The Worldwide History of Dress, Thames & Hudson.

Arnoldi, Mary Jo and Christine Mullen Kreamer, 1995. Crowning Achievements: African Arts of Dressing the Head, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, CA.

Biebuyck, Daniel P. and Nelly Van den Abbeele, 1984. The Power of Headdresses: A Cross-Cultural Study of Forms and Functions, Tendi S.A., Brussels, Belgium.

Brinkgreve, Francine and David J. Stuart-Fox, 2013. Living with Indonesian Art: The Frits Liefkes Collection, KIT Publishers, Amsterdam.

Carey, Margret, 1991. Beads and Beadwork of West and Central Africa, Shire Publications LTD, Buckinghamshire, UK.

Drewal, Henry John and John Mason, 1998. Beads, Body, and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, CA.

Gabriel, Hannelore, 1999. The Jewelry of Nepal, Weatherhill, New York & Tokyo.

Northern, Tamara, 1975. The Sign of the Leopard: Beaded Art of Cameroon, University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Summerfield, Anne and John, 1999. Walk in Splendor: Ceremonial Dress and the Minangkabau, UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Los Angeles, CA.

University of Hawai’I Art Gallery, 2009. Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Untracht, Oppi, 1997. Traditional Jewelry of India, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

Van Cutsem, Anne and Mauro Magliani, 2010. Powerful Headdresses: Africa/Asia, 5 Continents Editions, Milan, Italy.

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