As if we needed another excuse not to style our hair while self-isolating, Rihanna has provided the perfect one. With her most recent British Vogue cover, the 32-year-old fashion icon, entertainer and mogul reminded us she’s always one step ahead of a major cultural moment, sporting a durag (also fondly known as a “do-rag”) for her latest round of cover shots. The appearance of this culturally specific accessory on the cover is a first in the magazine’s history, and as writer Funmi Fetto notes in an extensive essay on the durag’s legacy and relevance, it’s more than just a fashion statement.
When is a cloth not just a cloth? When it begins life on the heads of black female slaves. The ultimate purpose of the durag when it was first conceived was neither about choice nor functionality. It was enforced, a method to suppress black women’s beauty and distinguish their lowly, inferior status as laborers.
Today, the durag, an iteration of the head cloth birthed in oppression, is a celebration of black culture. Extolling its virtues are the artists who paint it, musicians who write songs about it, festivals dedicated to it and Instagram accounts born to serve it. The tainted fabric has been reclaimed as a symbol of black beauty, a signifier of style worn on the streets, the catwalk, the red carpet… And now, in a powerful mic-drop moment, the durag is making its first appearance on the May 2020 cover of British Vogue, worn by Rihanna.
In daily life, we’ve generally known the durag best as the wave cap of choice for black men across America and beyond, but for all its cultural relevance and fond familiarity, Rihanna’s not wearing any basic beauty supply find. Likely for sheer Vogue-worthiness, the couture durag atop her head was created by famed milliner Stephen Jones, who has not only been a longtime collaborator of the star but has designed headwear for no less than the British royal family, well-known as a favorite of now-former senior royal Meghan Markle.
In this context, the elevation of this functional item—one that has been vilified, criminalized, demonized and derided by many outside of black culture (and some within)—to couture fashion status seems to be begging for appropriation. But as Fetto explains, its presence on one of fashion’s most hallowed publications is validating, nevertheless.
The popularity of durags amongst black men, says fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell, is closely related to the way the black community values hair and community. “Those playful Twitter videos, where young men gather together to untie their durags for ‘wave checks’, are a testament to the way hair and fashion interact to unify the black community”. That said, the grooming accessory is genderless. Women also use durags in the same way they use silk scarves and bonnets—worn to bed as a way to “lay down” edges, preserve hairstyles and retain moisture. For Cheyenne Kimora, an LA-based designer who launched You are Adorned, a handmade range of crystal-embellished durags, in 2019, it represents more than a hair accessory. “They take a stance for both social and political issues pertaining to our culture and they revolt against the false narratives that have put people like me at a grave disadvantage.”
While Rihanna is not the only celebrity to bring the durag into refined spaces, this also isn’t her first time doing so. Call it a “Rih-du,” if you will, but those who’ve long admired the star’s sartorial style remember well the sheer Swarovski-crystal mesh dress she wore to be honored as Fashion Icon at the 2014 CFDA Awards, topped with what her stylist Yusef then called a “crystal durag.”
In 2016, she rocked the accessory again, this time donning a mesh version to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she was accepting that year’s Vanguard award. As Fetto writes, “a month later, she showed her spring/summer 2017 Fenty x Puma collection at New York Fashion Week, with the models sporting durags in their candy-colored splendor.”
So, no…Rihanna’s not new to this, she’s true to this. But as her cover interview indicates, she’s also an innovator, albeit occasionally an unwitting one. The brains behind Fenty Beauty who strategically writes “all of the copy for the websites, the product descriptions, product names, the color names…” expresses surprise that the brand sparked a strategic zeitgeist. “I’m shocked by people saying, ‘Oh my god, what made you think of making makeup for black girls?’” she says. “I’m like, ‘What? You thought this was like, a marketing strategy? Like I’m a genius?’ It’s shocking most of the time.”
“Then it turns into disappointment that this is groundbreaking right now,” she continued. “In my mind, this was just normal.”
So, perhaps the choice to revere (and revisit) the oft-reviled but relentlessly normal durag came naturally to Rihanna. There has certainly been no better time for it than now, and perhaps no one better to bring it to the cover of British Vogue. Indeed, editor-in-chief Edward Enninful gives Rih full credit for the idea in his May 2020 editor’s letter.
“Did I ever think that I would see a durag on the cover of Vogue? No reader, I did not,” he writes. “Although this potent symbol of black life—of self-preservation, resistance and authenticity—has an important place in popular culture, it is rarely viewed through the prism of high fashion. Yet here we have the most aspirational and beautiful durag. How exciting.”
“It takes a person of extraordinary charisma to pull off such a moment,” he adds.