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Review: African Headdresses Could Help Inspire Hat Revival

August 11, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hats have gone out of style in much of the western world but a show of ancient and modern headdresses from Africa, now traveling around the United States, hints at a small revival.

The exhibit _ ``Crowning Achievements,″ now at the National Museum of African Art _ takes note of a wide-brimmed straw hat from Bolgatanga in northern Ghana.

``The shape and subdued colors seem to appeal to western as well as African markets,″ says the catalogue, ``for the hats are popular throughout West Africa as well as in shops and street stalls in the United States.″

For people handy with a needle or sewing machine, a leading American publisher of patterns, McCall’s, has come out with designs for African styles in hats and other articles.

Staff members of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, which put the show together, took a look at the African Marketplace in Los Angeles. They cam back with a baseball cap made of kente cloth. The brightly colored cloth originated in Ghana, but is now also made in the United States.

In the Los Angeles market the staff also found Islamic skull caps and a style called the garrison cap in the U.S. army. Both were made of the patterned, mud-dyed cloth of the Bamana people of Mali in central Africa. Others used patterns typical of the Asante people in Ghana and the patchwork cloth of a Muslim group in Senegal.

In Africa, hats and headdresses serve many purposes. In some areas no self-respecting, full-grown man will appear in public without an elaborate traditional hat. Babies may be protected from sun and rain by a bonnet made from half a gourd, finely carved with ethnic symbols and tied under the chin.

Other exhibits in the show are made not only with brightly colored African parrot feathers, monkey fur, bark, palm fiber, animal manes, wool, hide, clay and metal but also with imported cloth, buttons, mirrors, brass tacks and even pieces of chain mail that may have once been part of a knight’s armor in Medieval Europe.

Western hat makers could get some new ideas from a local king in Ghana, Ejisuhene Nana Diko III. The catalogue shows him wearing his great bright war hat and matching shirt. The show includes a similar war hat. The ornaments _ amulets covered with gold, silver and leather _ contain passages from the Koran, which are said to provide the warrior with spiritual protection.

The exhibit also shows how western styles influence what Africans wear.

The late reggae star Peter Tosh from Jamaica inspired a wig now popular in the African republic of Zimbabwe.

From a traditional military organization in Ghana, another former British colony, comes a long cotton cap that flows down the wearer’s back. The pattern combines the British Union Jack flag and the red-yellow-black tricolor of Ghana.

In neighboring Ivory Coast, a former French colony, the old regime is recalled in the shape of wooden hats carved to look like the pith helmet of a colonial planter or the kepi of a French gendarme. Some are lined with wallpaper of bright colors.


``Crowning Achievements″ will be at the National Museum of African Art in Washington until Aug. 18, at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., Sept 21 to Dec. 1, and at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, April 22, 1997, to June 15.

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