The Multivalent History of the Bandana

Man walking wearing a red bandana face covering
Image credit: Mat Reding on Unsplash

Bandanas are having something of a moment during Covid-19. During the pandemic, they’ve frequently served as a simple and comfortable face-covering option, albeit one that research suggests offers less protection than purpose-made masks. 

In the decades preceding the coronavirus, bandanas rarely appeared outside of very specific American subcultures. Wearing a bandana might have variously identified you as a cowboy, Hells Angel, Cholo/a, West Coast rapper, or a dog living in Park Slope. Famous wearers include Tupac Shakur, David Foster Wallace, Johnny Depp, Axl Rose (and Brett Michaels, Steven Tyler, all of Mötley Crüe — really anyone in a hair metal band). From a more recent generation there are the likes of Harry Styles and A$AP Rocky, with the latter sporting a yellow number so often it has its own Twitter account

A$AP Rocky on stage with a yellow bandana and jumpsuit
A$AP Rocky and his signature yellow bandana
Image credit: Gianfranco Blanco / CC BY-ND 2.0

The bandana’s design could not be simpler — just a square cut of cloth, fit to be worn in any number of ways. Its most familiar incarnation is a roughly 20×20’’ block of fabric (typically cambric) featuring a black and white paisley theme, mostly printed on Turkey red

Its simplicity is likely what has led to the bandana’s most abiding attribute: that it is a means of communicating a message. Bandanas are arguably the closest you get in clothing to a literal blank slate (apart, perhaps, from the T-shirt; an item which shares a similar straightforward design and is, fittingly, a common pairing with a kerchief). 

People have, of course, used head coverings for centuries. In fact, the etymology of ‘kerchief’ comes via the Anglo-French coverchef or cuerchief, originally from coverir meaning ‘to cover’ and chef for ‘head’. ‘Bandana’ derives from Sanskrit badhnāti meaning ‘he ties’ via the Hindi bāṅdhnū and Urdu bāndhnū for ‘tie-dyed’. The first recorded use of ‘bandana’ dates to 1741, which is around the time the modern incarnation of the garment arrives, along with its use as a tool for sending a message. 

Flat lay of assorted bandanas
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Britain in the early 1700s saw the implementation of the Calico Acts, which put a ban on importing Indian calico textiles (at the time referring to elaborately painted or printed cotton cloths originating in Calicut). This was in an effort to promote local cotton production in defence of a glut of textiles brought over from the East. There were also restrictions imposed on wearing these clothes, so donning a bandana at the time earned you considerable rebel kudos. Ditto for the Incroyables (‘unbelievables’) in France, who included giant bandana-type adornments in their elaborate costumes as a mark of rebellious decadence in the waning years of the French Revolution.

Over in the New World — prior to America’s own revolution — a textile printmaker named John Hewson made bandanas in support of the revolutionary cause that featured images of George Washington looking heroic on horseback. He did so at the canny behest of Washington’s wife, Martha, in contravention of a ban on textile printing by British colonists. After independence, these were passed around as souvenirs and so was born a centuries-long US tradition of showing political support via printed bandanas (many great examples, including Hewson’s print, can be seen here).

Kerchief communication in different forms came to the fore in the turbulence of the 20th century. In 1921 coal miners in West Virginia wore red kerchiefs when they took up arms in a march demanding fair labour practices, an occasion believed to have birthed the term ‘redneck’. During World War II, with women entering the workforce in formerly masculine roles, the bandana became a kind of a feminist symbol, as epitomised by the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter. The 1970s saw gay men using the so-called handkerchief code (also called ‘flagging’) to subtly communicate sexual preference via colour-coded handkerchiefs draped from a back pocket. Through similar methods, albeit to very different ends, California-based gangs would use red or blue bandanas to demonstrate their allegiances.  

The bandana’s capacity for conveying political messages has equally been put to countless mercantile ends. During WWI so-called ‘little banners’ were sold to raise money in support of the war effort in the US. They have similarly commemorated everything from the opening of the Panama Canal to the fall of the Berlin Wall; from The World’s Fair to P.T. Barnum’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. Besides that, bandanas have promoted just about anything imaginable, including breakfast cereals, Disney cartoons, sports teams, and the Beatles.

Red branded bandana stack from World Camp US 2017
Image credit: Sincerelyjess / CC BY-SA 4.0

Perhaps its most canny commercial incarnation — albeit indirectly — was through the popularisation of the on-screen cowboy. With the arrival of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and television’s rhinestone cowboys, came the appearance of kerchiefs in pop culture and the consequent proliferation of bandanas in fashion.

True to its nature as a variable tool fit for countless purposes, today a bandana could cost just about any price you please. It can be just about the cheapest wardrobe item you could buy. Or you might opt for something in the mid-range (one of my favourite examples being those produced as a side hustle by actor Colin Hanks — son of noted bandana wearer, Sheriff Woody himself — called…can you guess?…Hanks Kerchiefs!) And if you’re in the market for ones in the triple-digit range, you can spring for something by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent or He; perhaps a far cry from the bandana’s association with the bindle, but great for some contemporary Incroyable cosplay.

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