The history of the bandana: 2020’s hottest accessory
The “it” accessory that doubles as a face mask
To many, the humble bandana conjures up either its stylistic or practical uses. And the sight of denim alongside it brings to mind the cowboy or Rosie the Riveter. However, the origin of this simple, square piece of cloth dates back to the late 17th century.
Originally created in India as brightly colored red or blue silk and cotton handkerchiefs, the fabrics were usually decorated with white spots and other simple designs like the buta or paisley pattern. The square pieces of printed fabric quickly made their way to Europe by way of the Dutch East India Trading Company. While the cloths were used as handkerchiefs in India, South Asia and the Middle East, the Europeans marketed the items as women’s shawls.
Later, the bandana, or printed shawls as the Europeans used them, made its way to Colonial America. As America fought for its independence, the British, in an effort to limit the propaganda making its way through the New World, imposed a ban on printing, making it near impossible to block-print fabrics with the latest styles and designs. But, as the story goes, Martha Washington had a printmaker print a square cloth for her husband as a gift. The cotton fabric was printed with the image of General George Washington with military flags and cannons.
The popularity and use of cotton bandanas continued to grow within the United States. The cotton fabric’s durability and versatility gave it great value among the lower and working classes, who used them as napkins, scarves, handkerchiefs, slings, etc. And many speculate that the term “redneck” comes from the overwhelming use of bandanas as protection from the sun and keeping dirt at bay among farmers and others out west.
Both its widespread use and the popularity of John Wayne and Hollywood Western films later cemented the bandana as an iconic emblem in the United States. Its association with the cowboy and the American ideal eventually led many to see the bandana as a symbol of individualism, and adventure.