The Bandana: History's Colorful Canvas

Posted by Connor Humphreys on

Bandanas are definitely having a moment. From festival fashion to Super Bowl spectacles, bandanas have been EVERYWHERE over the past few years – and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. And why would it? We here at BANDITS may be a bit partial, but there’s no denying that bandanas have shown some serious staying power over time. These versatile pieces of colorful cloth are far from a fad, boasting a nearly 300-year history of form, fashion, and function.

Bandana Origins (Late 17th Century – Late 18th Century) 

The bandana, as it is commonly known today (printed colors and patterns on square cotton fabric), traces its origins back to the late 17th century in the Middle East and Southern Asia. In fact, even the word “bandana” is thought to come from either Hindi or Urdu, both in which the word "bāṅdhnū" loosely translates as a tied or bound cloth. It was in this region that the black printing processes emerged. It involved pressing pre-carved blocks into small pieces of woven fabrics, infusing them with the earliest dyes made from indigenous plants and materials.

(Block printed cotton, c. 1680-1760, Gujarat) - from The Victoria & Albert Museum

The most prevalent of these dyes, the Turkish Red, was originally made of madder root and alizarin (to infuse the dye into the cloth), along with as sheep’s dung, cow’s blood, and urine. It might sound like a strange (and disgusting) concoction, but this process produced a red dye that didn’t fade in the sun or upon washing – a valuable trait among garments of the day. 

These square pieces of printed fabric soon began making their way to Europe in the early 18th Century by way of the Dutch East India Trading Company. Marketed mainly as women’s shawls, one of the first patterns to gain popularity was the ancient Persian “boteh” pattern (or “buta” in Indian). Boteh, a repeating pattern of curved teardrop-shaped figures, would eventually become known among European consumers as “Paisley.” 

(Paisley Shawl, c.1830, Scotland) - from Los Angeles County Museum of Art

As European demand for the woven products grew, the imported fabrics from Persia and India became prohibitively expensive and became synonymous with wealth and status. At the same time, printers and manufacturers in Europe began making their own, cheaper versions of the popular patterned fabric to appeal to the masses. One town in Scotland, Paisley, emerged as a leader in European shawl production, and the name for the pattern stuck. 

The Bandana in America (1770’s – 1900)

The actual bandana product (a unisex scarf or kerchief, as opposed to the feminine shawl) traces its origins to the late 1700’s in early colonial America. Under British rule, many of the popular styles of the day tended to make their way to the colonies, and the woven shawl was no different. However, as with countless other British traditions, the Americans did it a bit differently.

In the midst of the fight for American independence, in an effort to stem revolutionary propaganda, the British imposed a colonies-wide ban on printing. As legend has it, in an act of defiance to British rule, Martha Washington commissioned a printmaker in Philadelphia named John Hewson to print a square kerchief as a gift for her husband, George. Hewson printed the cotton fabric with images of then-General George Washington alongside military flags and cannons.

(Early replica of Hewson's George Washington Bandana, c. 1780) - from New York Historical Society Museum & Library 

After the war was won, tales of the legendary print made their way into the public consciousness. A replica of the bandana was mass produced, became extremely popular, and the American love affair with the bandana was born. Politicians throughout the early and mid 1800’s used bandanas as campaign promotions, printing them with their names, slogans, and pictures

As the newly formed nation of the United States grew, so did the popularity and use of cotton bandanas. Their versatility as an item of clothing, along with the durability of the cotton fabric, made them treasured items among the lower and working class. Bandanas were widely used as handkerchiefs, napkins, scarves, tourniquets, slings, and even famously as a tie for a bundle of goods at the end of stick.     

During the Civil War, bandanas became a functional uniform staple for soldiers on both sides. In fact, it was common for a soldier going off to war to carry his possessions wrapped up in a cotton bandana. Afterward, the newly built transcontinental railroad brought settlers and many former soldiers West. With them, the bandana emerged as an enduring symbol tied to cowboys, railroad workers, prospectors, and others that came to populate the new American landscape.  

The Bandana In the 20th Century

At the dawn of the 20th Century, as industrialism took hold in the United States and Europe, bandanas were easier and less expensive to produce on a mass scale. As such, they quickly became a versatile and memorable marketing tool. In the early 1900’s, bandanas were printed to sell everything from sports stars to cereal. 

The proliferation of affordable bandanas also made them popular workwear and, as such, an adopted symbol of the fight for worker’s rights. In 1921, over 10,000 united mine workers in West Virginia armed themselves and wore red bandanas to demand unions and better working conditions. The event, at the time the largest armed uprising of citizens since the Civil War, became known as the West Virginia Coal Miners March and is thought to have contributed to the popularization of the term “redneck.”

("We Can Do It" poster by J. Howard Miller, c. 1942, which would later become commonly known as "Rosie The Riveter")

Bandanas remained popular as workwear and marketing materials until the onset of WW1, and particularly during WW2, when the two uses would collide to catapult bandanas onto the world stage. As women on the American home front entered the workforce, they were introduced to bandanas as a means to tie their long hair back while working in factories. Indeed one of the most iconic pieces of wartime propaganda was the image of Rosie the Riveter, polka-dot red bandana tied in her hair, encouraging working women on the home front that “We Can Do It!.”  

This, combined with the popularization of John Wayne and Hollywood Westerns, cemented the bandana as an iconic accessory in the United States and around the world. It was during this era that the bandana developed into a symbol of individualism, self-determination, and adventure.

(Jimi Hendrix, Newport Festival 1969, Photo: Ed Caraeff)

Later in the 20th century, the bandana took on more fashionable applications with Paisley re-emerging in the mid-to-late 1960’s as the pattern of choice. The Paisley pattern itself had a particular resurgence among British fashion houses of the day, and found its way into popular culture primarily through musicians. Acts like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who were regularly seen adorned in a multitude of Paisley patterns, often including bandanas. Paisley patterns and bandanas were also popular among the “hippie” culture of the same era, contributing to the further identification of bandanas as a symbol of counter-culture ideas. 

On into the 1970’s and 1980’s, bandanas continued to take on new meaning among a wide range of subcultures. They were, for a while, a popular accessory among the homosexual community used to denote certain sexual preferences. The motorcycle community used them as a functional face-cover on the road, but also as a way to distinguish different biker groups. The Boy Scouts of America even implemented bandanas as part of their uniform to identify various troops. Perhaps most infamously, though, bandanas were adopted by inner city street gangs, with different colors representing various gang affiliations.

(Tupac Shakur, 1994, Photo: Chi Modu)

This association with gang culture, combined with the rise in popularity of rap music, likely contributed to another resurgence on the bandana during the 1990s. Most notably, rapper Tupac Shakur was widely recognized for wearing bandanas in his signature headband style knotted just above his forehead. His very publicized murder in 1996 cemented Tupac and his signature bandana as icons that endure to this day.      

Bandanas Post 2000

Since the turn of the century, the bandana has continued to move beyond subculture and into mainstream fashion. Though their popularity has ebbed and flowed since 2000, the ubiquity of bandanas at music festivals over the past 5-10 years has provided yet another interesting subplot to their nearly 300-year history. To this day, bandanas remain a staple of trendsetting musicians, models, artists, celebrities, and other icons of creativity, originality, and rebellion. 

(Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Coachella 2015, Image from Instagram) 

It seems that these colorful cotton cloths are here to stay, and we at BANDITS hope they’re around as a functional fashion statement for another 300 years!  


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