What if you could tell your nosy neighbor to back off with a fabric pattern? What if you could tell your secret sweetheart to meet you around the corner for a quick kiss with the way your scarf was tied? What if you could out your husband’s secret lover with a little extra piece of fabric sticking out from your headscarf?
A koto misi outfit can do all that and more. Behind each piece of fabric, each colorful pattern, each fold in a headscarf, there is a hidden meaning. And at the Het Koto Museum in Suriname, Christine Van Russel-Henar is sharing the secret codes of Afro-Surinamese women’s fashion.
Enter the unassuming house on a neighborhood street in central Paramaribo and one of the first things you’ll see is a photo of Van Russel-Henar’s mother, grandmother and great-aunt in koto outfits from around the 1920s. Like the mannequins in the museum, they wear large skirts, structured jackets and headscarves. Van Russel-Henar explains that before emancipation in 1863, free women of color in Paramaribo wore these outfits as an act of resistance and pride: “They were saying, ‘Let the people see this is mine,’” with the large amounts of fabric and jewelry that enslaved women were forbidden from wearing. The outfits starting carrying secret meanings, understood only by other women.
Using mashed cassava and water as starch, Afro-Surinamese women shaped fabric into angisa (headscarves), folded at the back of the head to create a kind of hat. The odo (pattern names) were sayings like “The garbage truck collects garbage but not shame” and “I am a grown woman in my own house, I can do as I please,” while the folding could say, “Hold your tongue,” “Wait for me at the corner” or “Let them talk.” The large skirt, part of the koto, was also starched with cassava: It’s way too hot to wear an underskirt in Suriname’s tropical heat.
The origin of the koto is unknown. But theories about the large outfits range from the Moravian church’s attempt at modesty to female protection from the male gaze to a display of pride in being able to buy fabrics. Also women were known to go topless in Suriname, and some folklore claims the koto was a function of the slave-owner mistress’s jealousy, forcing enslaved women to cover up.
In the mid-20th century, the history of the scarves’ secret code was being forgotten. Van Russel-Henar’s mother, Ilse Henar-Hewitt, wrote the first book about koto misis in 1987, and in the early 1990s, Van Russel-Henar became obsessed with the headscarves, taking photos of every one she could find and writing down the odos. Today, the museum is an extension of her personal collection, which contains hundreds of pieces — at least 200 angisa alone. With a passion for the clothing and history, Van Russel-Henar guides locals and visitors from around the world through the pieces, explaining the meaning behind the fabrics, how women formed aid societies after the end of slavery and how Afro-Surinamese women developed a unique culture in the face of the Dutch government.
She likes the idea that younger women are starting to wear the koto for special occasions and holidays, and that premade angisa are now available at markets and even tourist shops. “Now that the museum is here, we see much more pride in the history,” she says. Many people who visit have a spiritual experience in the museum, she says, and they are getting to know their culture. And because of that, Van Russel-Henar adds, they won’t lose it.
The video below demonstrates how to create a fold that says, “Let them talk.”
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