A practical accessory tied and dyed to history: the politics of the bandana

The bandana is a colorful accessory we have come to associate with vintage Americana, but its historical roots extend far beyond the West and cowboys.


Paisley, the classic pattern imprinted on bandanas, was originally created in Kashmir (formerly part of the Persian empire) hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago; the exact origin date is debated by scholars. This design made its way to India where textile makers used a traditional tie-dying process known as “bandhani” to produce vibrant cotton and silk scarves. By the late 18th and 19th century, the Dutch East India Company was importing these “kerchiefs,” as they were referred to then, to Europe. They quickly gained popularity due to their style, function, and feel, and the French, German, and, most notably Scottish, founded factories and began to dye and sell bandanas themselves to meet the demand of this new market. 

The first bandana ever produced in America had an exalted image of George Washington perched atop a horse, surrounded by military paraphernalia and the words ‘liberty’ and ‘independence’ in bold letters. This illustration, commissioned by Washington’s wife, Martha, and created by printmaker, John Hewson, was the catalyst for America’s mainstream interest in the bandana. Since the American Revolution the bandana has gone through many iterations, proving to be a small but mighty object with a message. It was used as a form of propaganda by Eisenhower, worn in solidarity during the Industrial Workers’ Strikes of the 1910’s, tucked into back pockets as code during the Gay Rights Movement, and continues to remain an essential part of our cultural fabric. 


Cowboys donned bandanas and wild rags (the silk version of a bandana) beginning in the mid-1800’s. Originally cut from flour sacks, the 30x40 inch square cloth was most commonly tied around the neck or face for protection. They were also used as bandages for human or horse injury, for makeshift saddle rigging, and as potholders or dish rags. Silk became the most popular fabric because of its versatility no matter the season; it could wick moisture away in summer months and provide warmth in winter months. Today’s working ranchers still wear silk wild rags, the only difference being changes in color dyeing practices and patterns. At Ranchlands, our team uses them as a layering tool in the winter, and since heat increases the amount of dust and dirt in the air during the summer, wild rags operate as face shields and “sunscreen.” And, with the terrible reality of the pandemic, we often wear bandanas into town, too, and use them as face masks at the grocery store.


One can think of very few wardrobe items as versatile as the bandana. What else could you tie around your neck for warmth, tie up your hair for practicality, tie around your wrist for flair, or tie around your face for protection? A scarf doesn’t count.

References:

Smithsonian Magazine, "The Global History of the Bandana," https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/global-history-bandana-180976040/