Hairdressing and Hairstyles in Yorubaland: History, Nature, Dynamics and Significance

Mojalaoluwa Akin-Adeboye
January 7, 2023

Hairdressing and hairstyles are global phenomena that achieve the purpose of styling, grooming, and socio-cultural development. Hair serves various purposes, such as aesthetics, adornment, social status, class distinction, and identification. This is not different from hairdressing among the Yoruba people of Southwest Nigeria. Hairdressing and hairstyles are strong features for identification and social status among the Yoruba.

The popular Yoruba adage “A kii di irun tabi ge irun leyin olori”, which is loosely translated as “one does not plait or cut a person’s hair without the consent of the owner of the head,” implies that a person’s hair is a major representation of that person. Yoruba gods and goddesses also place a high premium on hairdressing. The earth, for instance, is personified as a woman who has her hair combed with hoes (while farming), hence the panegyric that describes the earth as “Ile, Ogere, a foko yeri” loosely translated as “Earth, the goddess, who combs her hair with a hoe.” To the ancient Yoruba people, the woman’s hair is her beauty. If a woman’s hair is tidy and well-plaited, she is gorgeous. This is the inspiration behind the common Yoruba saying that “Irun ni ewa obinrin,” loosely translated as “the hair is the beauty of a woman.”

In Yorubaland, there is a god or deity associated with every profession. Osun, the Yoruba goddess, associated with hairdressing, is the goddess of fresh waters, fertility, love, peace, prosperity, beauty, and charm. According to Yoruba myths, Osun was the first deity/goddess to use a comb, and she was also the first hairdresser.

There are different types of hairstyles in Yorubaland. Some of the common hairbeautification styles or patterns are:

Suku hairstyle

Source:  Refinedng, “Yoruba Traditional Hairstyles”, October 3, 2020.

Source: Refinedng, “Yoruba Traditional Hairstyles”, October 3, 2020.

Suku- a style with either short or long knots. Braids run from the forehead, sides, and back of the head to the head to the crown/ middle area of the head. Another form of Suku is called the Suku Ologede (sleeping didi method) Queens originally wore this style across Yoruba land.

koroba hairstyle

Emma Dabiri, The canerow chronicles: Yoruba hairstyles and origins, Africa 2.0 magazine, May 28.

Source: Emma Dabiri, The canerow chronicles: Yoruba hairstyles and origins, Africa 2.0 magazine, May 28.

Koroba (a calabash turned upside down): This style involves beautifully woven hair from the center of the scalp down to the front, rear and sides. The tips are typically made into knots and designed with beads.

Kolese hairstyle

Kolese hairstyle

Source: Emma Dabiri, The canerow chronicles: Yoruba hairstyles and origins, Africa 2.0 magazine, May 28.

Kolese (without legs)- is a style in which cornrows run from the front/top of the headto the ends and at the back of the head, close to the neck. This style was called ‘kolese’ because women in the precolonial Yoruba land had curly or coily hair. The ends of their hair would not stand straight and would just curl up. Hence the name kolese. It is a well-known braided hairstyle that is found throughout much of Yorubaland.

Ipako-Elede hairstyle

Ipako elede hairstyle

Source: Emma Dabiri, The canerow chronicles: Yoruba hairstyles and origins, Africa 2.0 magazine, May 28.

Ipako-Elede (back of a pig’s head)- is a style in which cornrows run from the rear of the head and end at the top of the head, close to the forehead. This style is going extinct because many ladies do not like how the back of their heads looks after making the style.

Panumo hairstyle

Panumo hairstyle

Source: Babajide, Yoruba hairstyles, ‘Panumo.’ Instagram, December 5, 2018. June 5, 2022.

Panumo (keep quiet)- the cornrows start from different points, the front/ top of the head and the back of the head, and meet at the center/ crown of the head (usually with a little opening). The hair forms a ‘mouth,’ and the crown forms the opening ofthe mouth.

Orisabunmi hairstyle

Orisabunmi hairstyle

Africa Heritages, Braids; An age-long secret that will blow your mind, February 17, 2021.

Orisabunmi (gift from the deity): this style is very similar to ‘Aafin Oba.’ There are, however, very slight distinctions. It was first done and named after a female diviner called Orisabunmi.

Agogo hairstyle

Agogo (cockscomb) hairstyle

Source: J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere- The Jean Pigozzi Collection of African Art, 1974.

Agogo (cockscomb)- this style is made to imitate a cockscomb. Women who wear this style signify that they are either married or are priestesses belonging to a cult (of Sango, Osun, Esu, Oya, etc.).

There are a wide variety of Yoruba hairstyles with different arrays of significance. Other popular hairstyles include Kojusoko (face your husband),Keyinsoko (turn your back to your husband), Ojonpeti (rain falling on theears), Aarinomonimasun (I will sleep inthe middle of my offspring), Moremi (ajasoro), Iyawo Osingin (newly wedded wife), Ilari osanyin (Ilari [the parting of the head], Osanyin, the god of medicine), etc.

The Yoruba have a strong tradition of visual communication through sculptural forms and are acknowledged to be the most prolific wood carvers in Africa. But their sculptural genius is not confined to wood and other hard media. One of the liveliest sculptural arts in Yorubaland today is hairstyling. Hairdressers can be seen performing their art on shaded verandahs or under trees, often seated next to their colorful signs offering a variety of illustrated hairstyles for their customers to choosefrom.

In addition to being a popular art of reflecting and interpreting Yoruba contemporary life, hairstyles also perform the traditional function of indicating and maintaining social categories. They also are important in rites of transition from onecategory or status to another.

Yoruba hairstyles often function as “multivocal” symbols that are meaningful in many contexts or levels. The same hairstyle may convey different but related meanings depending on the context. It should be known that not only do women make their hair, but men also make their hair.

In addition to hair functioning in rites of passage related to the life cycle, it is also important to convey information about political and occupational roles and kinship affiliation in several secular contexts. There are several special hairstyles and rituals associated with the palace. Traditionally, messengers of each Yoruba king had his servants’ heads shaved distinctively to be readily identifiable.

The styles varied from area to area. In the Oyo area, court messengers called Ilari wore several hairstyles depending on the kingdom. At Oyo, it is recorded that maleilari had alternate sides of their heads shaved every fifth day except for a circular patch on the crown. The hair on the circular patch was allowed to grow as long as possible and was braided and dyed with indigo. Each Ilari’s name was his message. The names generally signified either attribute of the king or indicated his will in particular matters.

Thus, a messenger named Madarikan (do not oppose the king) might be sent to a recalcitrant subject. His hair would proclaim his role as a palace messenger, while his name would proclaim his specific message. Upon the death of a king, his ilari would allow their hair to grow long. Upon the new king’s coronation, a special initiation ceremony would be held for the Ilari; their heads would be shaved, medicines rubbed into the new incisions, and they would receive new names.

At Ife, the heads of messengers were shaved on alternate sides every four days in a fashion similar to that described for the Oyo area. These messengers were called emese. They carried messages and performed errands not only for the king but also for the palace chiefs. Bilateral asymmetry in head-shaving was also extended to head and body decoration for certain ceremonial occasions. During the festival for the god Oranmiyan, who is said to have been born half black and half white, theemese paint the right half red in camwood and the left white with chalk. Bilateral hair and body decoration feature prominently in the hair behavior associated with the cult of Eshu, the messenger god.

Furthermore, hairdressing is also associated significantly with some indigenous Yoruba religious courts. Several Yoruba religious cults use hair both during the rites of passage related to the cult and as an indicator of specific cult affiliation by priests and members. For instance, in the Ijebu-Remo area at Shagamu, both Esu priests and female devotees have been observed to wear the following binal variations involving head painting, head shaving, and hairstyling: (1) one half of the head shaved, and the other braided or just cut short and left unbraided — one half may also be colored black with charcoal and the other red with Osun; (2) the entire head shaved with one half colored black and the other red; and (3) a different braided woman’s hairstyle on each half of the head, for example, suku, the basket style, may be worn on the left and kolese [without legs] on the right.

In general, Yoruba hairstyles often function as opaque symbols, the specific message depending on the social context.

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