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The cowrie shells on this hat are from the Indian Ocean, though cowries also grow off the coasts of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Humans have bestowed several meanings upon this small shell. In parts of India and Africa, the cowrie shell is a symbol of the human eye and is often added to clothing to protect the wearer against the evil eye. In central Africa, cowries have been used as a form of currency, and as symbols of power and prestige. And with its resemblance to female genitalia, a cowrie is also a symbol of fertility.

Where was this textile created?

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The Cowrie

Africa: Central Africa, Democratic Republic of the Congo; Kuba people
Mid 20th century
Raffia base with applied cotton strips, cowrie shells and glass beads
36 cm x 76.5 cm circumference
Gift of Dr. Peter Herschman
T86.0016 Textile Museum of Canada

The base for this hat is a basket-like cone made of sticks and wide raffia leaves. The hat is heavy, rigid and packed with shells and beads. Cotton cloth sewn over the cone is decorated with rows of cowrie shells. Smaller shells adorn a shelf on the back of the hat, and a raffia flap is completely covered with black and white beads, which are sewn in knot-like patterns.

In traditional Kuba culture, only the King is allowed to wear large numbers of cowrie shells. This hat was most likely part of a king’s elaborate costume that would have featured even more cowries and beads, and weighed upwards of 80 kg. The king would have required assistance to take the costume on and off.

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