Frank Schneider’s portrait of Marie Laveau (painted in 1920 and based on an earlier work by George Catlin) hangs inside the Cabildo of the Louisiana State Museum, and shows the legendary “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans” wearing a butternut-yellow headwrap with burnt orange stripes. When Angela Bassett portrayed Laveau in American Horror Story: Coven, a headwrap was also an essential part of her wardrobe. Coven was loosely based on true events, but Laveau’s headwraps were real—and her decision to wear them was deeply rooted in the so-called tignon laws that prohibited Black women from displaying their hair in public for nearly 20 years.
During the 18th century, the tignon (a headwrap or handkerchief) emerged as a symbol of pride for free women of color in New Orleans. In 1769, the law of coartación allowed enslaved people in Louisiana to purchase their own freedom, which afforded them the opportunity to be able to build wealth and status, according to Jennifer M. Spears’s 2009 book Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans. Toward the end of the Spanish colonial period (1763 through 1802), nearly 1,500 enslaved people in New Orleans “had acquired their freedom by cash payments,” according to Know Louisiana, and by 1810, free people of color made up 44 percent of the city’s free population.
Free women of color dressed elegantly and embellished their hair with feathers and jewels. They were flaunting their femininity because they now had the freedom to do so. While most free women of color married free men of color and raised families with them, they were also attracting the attention of non-Black men, which threatened an already fragile social order.
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