The History of Bandanas - The Iconic Piece Of Square Cloth

For a simple square piece of cloth, the bandana has been used as a neckerchief to protect against dust and today, it has become a well renowned fashion accessory for different people. It comes in a wide variety of colors, styles and designs which provide users with several choices to select from.
The term “bandana” is believed to have originated from the Portuguese and also the Hindustani languages. The word had a simple meaning – it described a primitive method that was used to obtain a dyeing effect by tying up a cloth. This was done in different places on the cloth which prevented dye from coming into contact with the tied areas. 
The cloth is usually cut from a square or triangular piece of cloth which can be folded and worn around the neck, the head, at back of the head or around the nose as a facemask. In the recent past, the bandana has been associated with the cowboys who have been featured in many Western movies wearing them. 
In history, the piece of cloth has been a favorite for farmers, pirates and rail road engineers among others. Not only was it used to wipe the sweat off the brow but it was used to protect the nose and the mouth from dust and dirt. 

So, what is the history of bandanas? 

18th Century
The bandana as a word believed to have originated from the Sanskrit term “badhnati” which means “to tie.” This referred to a technique that was used in making tie–dying clothing. During the 18 century, the word was able to evolve and became anglicized as “bandannoes.” This means cotton handkerchief and its way before the pirates and other seafarers stumbled up to this piece of clothing finally introducing it across Europe and the regions across the Atlantic. 
The origin of the cloth is India where the name “badhnati” was used before the cloth spread to England thanks to trading between seafarers in different regions. The first red dyes used were found to fade easily and it was hard for the Europeans to get it right. This means that most bandanas by then were available in blue, brown, gray or black colors. Despite this, paisley was a common pattern even today. 
In 1775, Martha Washington traveled north to meet George Washington for Christmas. George was by then commanding the Continental Army. During the journey, Martha visited Joseph and Esther Reed in Philadelphia. There, Martha met with John Hewson who was a printmaker recommended to her by Benjamin Franklin. John Hewson was known for his skills and defiance especially regarding the ban placed on textile printing by the British at the time. John Hewson went ahead to copy drawings of military flags and cannons which Martha had shared. Despite the time taken to design the textile, the final designs did not have a good likeness of George Washington in order for them to be completed. 
While celebrating their anniversary at the Massachusetts headquarters, George and Martha received a parcel that arrived from Philadelphia. It contained the image of a General on horseback. This is believed to be the first bandana in America with the image of George Washington. Whie it's unknown exactly how it looks, there are some representations here.
This prompted George Washington to write a thank you letter to John, the print maker at the instance of Martha Washington. The thank note read “"Mrs. Washington desires I thank you for the picture sent her. Mr. Campbell has made a very formidable figure of the Commander-in-Chief, giving him a sufficient portion of terror in his countenance." 
19th Century 
In a town called Paisley which was in Scotland, the production of shawls eclipsed Norwich and Edinburgh. This was attributed to pattern piracy, fast evolving labor structures and early adoption of the Jacquard loom. 
red and blue paisley bandana
This is how the pattern “paisley” which is the most common on bandanas even today came to posses its name. The pattern came to acquire different nicknames over the years especially with its adoption in other regions. 
In French, it was called “tadpole”, in Viennese, it was called “little onion”, in America it was nicknamed “Persian pickles” and in Welsh, it was known as “Welsh pears.” This became popular at the turn of the 20th century where the paisley design was printed on red, blue and black clothing material. 
During this time, the bandanas had become very popular and now they were used to provide useful information such as sign language. They were designed with a collection of wild animals and were used as posters. Others were used by children to play games like Blind man’s Bluff where one child was blindfolded with the bandana while he or she tried to find the rest of the children through touch. 
blind mans buff andre henri dargelass
Another game that came to be popularized with the bandana was pin the mouse on the cat’s nose or what has come to be known today as pin the donkey tail. 
In 1889, a long awaited and highly publicized, illegal bare knuckle bout between the Great John L Sullivan and Jake Kilrain took place. This was in a secret location in a clearing in Mississippi. The Prize Rule No 3 dictated that bandanas that the boxers had chosen were tied to the posts and others around the wrists. This helped the audience to know who had landed a punch. 
During both centuries (18th and 19th) the print design available varied from the paisley design to pictorials of George Washington, to teddy bears and other wild animals. 
In 1812, a soldier who was going off to war hoped to bundle his possessions with a cotton bandana on which his girlfriend had printed a verse on it. During his return, the same bundle of possessions carried off to war was now adorned with a similar bandanna that had words of admiration and patriotic images. Even throughout World War I and II, the practice was done by many people as a way of taking a piece of the other person with them. 
20th Century 
This is the period when bandanas became more famous. They were widely used by musicians, gangs, the gay community, housewives, miners, construction workers and film stars starring in cow boy movies. In the cow boy movies, the bandana was used as a neckerchief which was pulled over the mouth and nose. This was done to prevent the rider from breathing in dirt and dust particles which were a common feature along the trail that cowboys took. 
bandana on cowboy
Unfortunately, the popularization of the bandana by cowboys led to it being used by outlaws who were involved in robberies and crime at the time. This made the cloth to be associated with the wrong side of the law. 
Around the 1930s, peddlers and tinkers were known to sell bandanas on the streets from door to door. This happened during the festive season where stockings were placed around the chimney for Santa Claus to place a present in. In the morning, children would find bandanas which were printed with their favorite fairy tale character for example Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was actually after Disney had produced its first animated film by the same name. 
Stars like Tom Mix and his wonder horse were very famous during the silent era movie which also led to the development of a radio show. During the end of each episode, it ended with a cliff hanger. Fans especially the young were known to down bowls of cereals. This was done in order to secure a membership to the “Straight Shooter Club”. During the show, fans would be able to secure prizes like autographed bandanas and magnet rings. 
miners wearing bandanas neckerchief
In the 1930s, the red bandanas were used as neckerchiefs by miners who were spending hours and even nights deep in the mines. They used it to cover their mouth and noses to prevent dirt and dust. During this time, due to the widespread use of red bandanas, it led to the term “red necks” being coined. 
During the same period, it became fashionable as a hobo bag. It was tied to a stick which was slung over the shoulder and was used to hold the belongings of the user who rode the box cars. This became the romantic symbol among young people back then as an inspiration to run away from home. This symbol has been depicted in many movies and TV shows to indicate someone running away from their problems especially in animations. 
bandana as hobo bag
In the 1940s, it became a fashion statement among ladies who used the cloth to tie their hair at back. This became the widely known macho style do-rag. The style became so popular that it was adopted by different biker groups. Ladies tied their hair at the back to ensure it was in place especially when one was outdoors and wind is blowing at all times. 
In the 1950s, the bandana was used by many political aspirants to garner votes from the public. The cloth would be printed with the image of the political aspirant much the same as posters are printed today. By then, they were referred to as the “little bandanas.” During the period, they also became the best channel to communicate a range of issues. This was largely attributed to their additional attraction of being an extremely versatile item of clothing. They were used as handkerchiefs, neckerchiefs, headband, headscarf, do-rag and hair band among others. 
In 1960s, the paisley pattern broke ground and became once again a fashion icon. John Lennon even had his Rolls Royce painted paisley which occurred after the Beatles visited India. This led to the design being widely popularized during the 1970s by gay groups. They used the design and the colors to communicate different sexual preferences. This was common in San Francisco area where they were able to recall what their brethren in the 19 century had used the paisley designed cloth to communicate signals. 
John Lennon with his paisley Rolls Royce
In the 1980s, the bandana became widely used in the gangs of US. Each gang had picked its own color and design. Although paisley remained a predominant design, other designs which included the gang logo were incorporated. In the gang wars, specific colors were used to display different meanings and demographic. For example, the blue bandannaed Crips would face off their arch rivals, the red bandannaed Bloods. Even the Boy Scout adopted the bandana but it was commonly printed in a single color “green, yellow or red.” This was done to show troop affiliation. 
scouts bandana design
In 1986, the Cooper Hewitt museum recognized the paisley bandana design especially the classic red, black and white. These were entered in the collection of the museum. 
tupac wearing red bandana
In the 1990s, the custom bandanas became a signature symbol of musicians from country music stars to rock and roll to hip-hop. Tupac, who was gunned down in 1996, was widely recognized for wearing a different custom colored bandana around the head. Pharell, Snoop Dog, Usher, Lil Jon, Ice Cube, Xzibit and Nas were known to have a bandana with them when performing on stage or even when attending award shows. Learn more about custom bandanas here.
2000 to present 
During this time, the materials used to make the clothing varied from cotton to poly-cotton. Different custom designs were placed on the bandana with different messages and brands. For example, you can always shop for a Harley Davidson custom branded bandana from online stores across the world. You can also find common designs like skulls, brand names, camouflage and tribal designs. 
All these have been custom made in order to provide a wide range of selection for customers who range from bikers to party goers. 
Shoppers can be able to purchase the widely known square piece of cloth or the newly introduced tube bandanas. The tube bandanas have become synonymous with bikers who find them to be easy to wear and multi-functional too. 
tube bandanas fully customized
One can either use them as a hair band, head band, wrist band, do-rag, face mask and neckerchief. This is because the custom tube bandanas help to prevent dirt, dust, wind burn and sun burn among other weather elements. In simple terms – it protects the rider from weather elements. 
The role of bandanas in everyday life has not stopped with bikers or even party goers. Fashion houses are showcasing the different uses of the clothing on runways across the worlds. Models are used to show how the piece of clothing can be incorporated in the everyday wear for normal people. Apart from being used to hold the hair together especially on a windy day, it has been showcased for use in other ways. 
Final Thoughts 
One thing is for sure, the bandana is here to stay and this can be attested to its use and survival since the 18th century and may be beyond to the 21st century and beyond. It has been widely used in homes by house wives, children and dads. 
At work, it has been used by miners who needed it to wipe the sweat off their face and necks. It helps to prevent dirt and dust from finding its way into the nose and the mouth when worn as a face mask. When you fast forward to the days of the cow boys, you will learn that the cloth was used as a neckerchief most of the time. This is the time when it was first used by outlaws during crimes and robberies (according to history.) 
In the 1970s, it was used by the San Francisco LGBT community as a way of secretly communicating while in the 80s; it was used as a mark by different gangs. The Crips and The Bloods among other gangs used the red and blue colored paisley designed bandana to signify their gang colors. 
bloods and crips gangs use bandana
In the late 80s and 90s, it was time for the musicians who wore different colored with different designs as a fashion statement. Bikers also adopted them not only as a fashion statement but as a protection against harsh weather elements like wind, cold and sun. 
Today, bandanas are no longer only available as squared piece of cloth, the custom tube has become a favorite for many especially the bikers. This is attributed to its multi-functional use as well as its ease of wearing. All the user needs to do is slide it down the head, past the eyes and nose and finally rest it around the nose, mouth and neck area covering all three areas. 

Celebrities Wearing Bandanas

rhianna wearing bandana

justin timberlake wearing blue bandana

Like seeing Celebs with bandanas? Eat your heart out here.