The gele is one of those fashion pieces that have weathered the test of time.
Gele is the Yoruba term for a woman’s headpiece that serves as a complementary and final adornment. The gele is often the same colour or colours as the rest of her outfit, in that sense it is as much a part of the outfit as the iro and buba. A traditional Yoruba attire is not complete without the gele in the way that royalty are not complete without their crown.
It is believed that some cultures used head wraps/geles before the days of slavery so that men could show off their wealth and the level of their social status and so that women could prove that they were prosperous and spiritual.
The gele is a large rectangular cloth tied on a woman’s head in a variety of fashions. The material used to make it is usually of a stiff, but flexible, nature, for example, ofi, aso-oke (thickly woven silk), brocade (cotton) and damask.
The gele should cover the hair completely and must be tied at the back of the neck. A lot of modern-day ladies wear their geles with some of their hair showing, as covering the hair makes the outfit feel and look more traditional. It is said that the gele is used to showcase the facial beauty of the African woman and to take attention away from the body.
Unlike a hat or fascinator, the gele often needs the assistance of another person to pull the one end of the material tightly as it is wrapped around the wearer’s hair. Because of the amount of effort that goes into donning a gele, removing it intact and simply placing it on one’s head when needed, has become a common practice. Besides the difficulty of wearing one, it can also cause a headache because it is often tied too tightly. And yet, the women continue to wear it with pride. It is a symbol of elegance, of maturity and of wealth. Young girls don’t wear a gele with their outfit, so it is as much a symbol of the coming of age of a woman as it is an elaborate fashion statement.
And it is more than wrapping the material round one’s head. Today, the women of Nigeria are willing to pay more to learn how to tie a gele properly. A well tied gele will attract as much attention, if not more, than the outfit itself.
The gele is worn for glamorous events such as weddings, birthdays, christening, inaugurations or even funerals, and the styles have become more and more elaborate. Some resemble blossoming flowers whilst others are more fan-like. Gele-tying is an art, and like every other art, its success depends on creativity and mastery.
Though it is traditionally part of the Yoruba attire, you can now find other tribes wearing the gele as well, so that it has become a symbol of Nigeria, far more than a symbol of the Yorubas.
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