Are You Familiar with a Tignon?

A Few Words from Costume Designer Danielle Domingue Sumi

Costume Research and Design

New Orleans Opera’s 22-23 season-opening production of The Barber of Seville is set in the French Quarter of antebellum New Orleans. Read on to gain insight into the costume choices for this production.

I chose to mirror several historical clothing design elements. One, in particular, existing in French colonies and Caribbean colonies and later extended to those under Spanish rule: the Tignon. Within the courtyard setting of New Orleans and casting of African American women singing the roles of Rosina and Berta; I was inspired to highlight this now common-day accessory which was once law restricting the lives of people of color.

A tignon (also spelled and pronounced tiyon) is a type of head covering with a resemblance to the African headdress. According to historians’ notes, the tignon law otherwise known as Code Noir, or black code, was implemented with hopes to control women ‘who had become too light skinned or who dressed too elegantly, or who, in reality, competed too freely with white women for status and thus threatened the social order.’ Additionally noted, “the intent of having the tignon mark inferiority had a somewhat different effect; instead of being considered a badge of dishonor, the tignon became a fashion statement. The bright reds, blues, and yellows of the scarves, and the imaginative wrapping techniques employed by their wearers, are said to have enhanced the beauty of the women of color. There is no evidence it was ever enforced, and the women who followed the law turned the headdress into a mark of distinction.”

By this period when we meet our Rosina, the tignon style head covering has decreased in wear. It may even be considered haute couture, “an impeccable, custom-fitted high-end fashion design constructed by hand.” We are no strangers to this current-day fashion, worn now as a remembrance and celebration; my intention is to recognize, dialogue, and increase awareness while telling the story of African American culture (Louisiana Creole culture) in costume.

— Danielle Domingue Sumi, Costumer Designer

REFERENCES

Kein, Sybil, ed. (2000). Creole: the history and legacy of Louisiana’s free people of color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-8071-4205-9. OCLC 703156104

Clinton, Catherine; Gillespie, Michele (1997-06-26). The Devil’s Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South. Oxford University Press. p. 238. ISBN 978-0-19-802721-8.

Johnson, Jessica Marie (2020). Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 198. ISBN 978-0-8122-5238-5.

Stewart, Whitney Nell (2018-06-23). “Fashioning Frenchness: Gens de Couleur Libres and the Cultural Struggle for Power in Antebellum New Orleans”. Journal of Social History. 51 (3): 526–556. ISSN 1527-1897.

“The Tignon Laws Set The Precedent For The Appropriation and Misconception Around Black Hair”. Essence. Retrieved 2021-02-06.

https://www.hnoc.org/sites/default/files/quarterly/2017_Spring_Quarterly.pdf

“Haute Couture | Fashion A–Z”. The Business of Fashion. Retrieved 11 October 2018.