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What You Wear and Who You Are: A World of Choices

Adornment is deeply rooted in our individual and cultural identities.

Your history, religious and spiritual beliefs, political practices, and social status may all be communicated by what you choose to display on your body. Adornment adaptations from Africa can be found in all cultures of the diaspora and in many other places.

These Adornment videos take a playful look at the adaptations of adornment styles through time and over different continents. The changing faces show our similarities, and our differences.

Adornment then

In ancient Africa, adornment was highly developed, and often regulated by strict cultural rules and customs. When Africans arrived at slave ports in the new world, often times their country of origin could be determined by forms of adornment such as scarification, tooth filing, tattooing, body piercing, and hair styles. During the slave trade, many of these forms were lost as slave owners made restrictions on appearance and body modification.

Adornment now

Today, most people have the freedom to make choices such as braiding their hair, piercing various parts of their body, and wearing certain styles of clothing or hats. The roots of adornment still exist, but the meanings behind the forms have changed over time and between cultures. A person wearing dreadlocks in Jamaica may be representing a totally different idea than someone on the streets of San Francisco.


African beadwork



When you notice a woman today with intricate beadwork in her hair, it serves as an example of how the fascinating history of African beadwork has been passed on through generations and across continents. Zulu tribes in South Africa have an intricate system of beadwork which assigns specific meanings to the color of each bead. For example, depending on the design of the object, white beads usually symbolizes purity and/or spiritual love while red beads communicate strong emotion and passion.


Cowry shells



Another example of adornment adaptation lies in the story of the Cowry shell. At one point, the Cowry shell was the most important currency in Africa. Many African cultures also viewed it as a fertility symbol, a burial offering, and a mystic object. Today, the use of the Cowry shell as currency in Africa is virtually nonexistent. However, throughout the diaspora, Cowry shells can be found in contemporary jewelry, clothing, hairstyles, contemporary art, etc. They are an instantly recognizable link to one’s African heritage.