Discover the fascinating history of the American bandana.

The bandana is, basically, the modern equivalent of a kerchief, but with some differences. In fact, the bandana, pretty much in its present form, has been around for going on 300 years. And it's a lot more than just a square cloth to wipe your nose or your forehead with.

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Bandanas in America

When was the last time you gave any real thought to bandanas? Those of us who use them barely notice them even though we see them everywhere – on heads, around necks, in back pockets, tied to straps. But a world without bandanas would be a lot less fun and far less colorful. So let's take a closer look at that ubiquitous but sometimes overlooked article of clothing called a bandana.

What Is a Bandana . . . Really?

The bandana is, basically, the modern equivalent of a kerchief, but with some differences. In fact, the bandana, pretty much in its present form, has been around for going on 300 years. And it's a lot more than just a square cloth to wipe your nose or your forehead with.

A kerchief (from the French couvre-chef, which means cover the head) is a triangular-shaped (but sometimes square) piece of fabric usually tied over the head or around the neck for both protective and decorative purposes. A bandana, on the other hand, was most often a square cloth a bit larger and often more colorful (frequently paisley) than a kerchief and originally worn mostly on the head.

But now bandana colors have exploded into a multitude of hues, as well as a variety of patterns and sizes (no longer just 20 inches by 20 inches), and the uses have expanded surprisingly.

Although a bandana resembles a kerchief (which dates at least from ancient Greece) in shape, size, and function, it differs in the kind of fabric used. A kerchief was generally made of linen while a bandana was (and still is) most commonly made of plain-woven cotton, or cambric, and sometimes silk. Further, kerchiefs were/are generally plainer than bandanas, with fewer prints and colors.

Kerchiefs had and have far less decorative function than bandanas, being worn chiefly as a head covering. Bandanas have had practical applications and have served as identifiers among sailors, farmers, cowboys, bikers, and gang members. Having started out as a two-tone paisley-print cotton cambric cloth, bandanas have come a long way.

Now you can find them imprinted with logos, slogans, and political messages. They are used for everything from personal expression to symbols of group identity to promotional tools for political campaigns and popular culture.

Some of the Bandana's Ancient Origins

The name bandana itself is believed to come from the Hindi bandhana or Sanskrit badhnati, which means to bind or tie. Bandana colors and patterns were originally created by means of the traditional resist dye techniques found in Turkey and India.

Ancient Bandana Origins

The distinctive paisley pattern that once especially characterized bandanas comes from Kashmir in the ancient Persian empire (not from Paisley in Scotland). This pattern of curved, feathery shapes is the one most commonly associated with bandanas and was largely based on a pine-cone design that can be traced back to India.

The Persian word for the paisley pattern is boteh. It actually has several meanings and shades of meaning, including thicket, bramble, or herb and is also thought to refer to a palm leaf or a repeating pattern of a cluster of leaves. In any case, this boteh design stretches back 2,000 years to ancient Persia from where it made its way to India and was called buta.

But in the eighteenth century, owing to trade with the Far East, the bandana and its signature patterns came to the West. And that's where it really took off.

The Bandana Comes to Europe

In the eighteenth century, the Dutch East India company imported woven cashmere buta print bandanas. These quickly became hugely popular as shawls for women. They also served as status symbols because they were very expensive, with demand soon outstripping supply, and only the well to do could afford them. As a result, companies in England and Scotland soon began production of their own shawl-like bandanas to meet the demand.

The name badnahati made its way into Portuguese to become bandannoe and finally became our bandana. There were, however, more than just changes in the name occurring at this time.

The most popular pattern at the time was a lopsided teardrop pattern, the paisley of the day, which went through various permutations in both name and pattern in various countries. In France, it was called "tadpoles," and in Wales it was known as "Welsh pears." In America, the pattern was called "Persian pickles" before finally being widely recognized as paisley.

The Bandana Comes to the Colonies

George Washington Bandana

The first ever true bandana, as we know it today, was the result of a curious incident involving Martha and George Washington. It happened like this . . .

In 1775, Washington had assumed command of the Continental Army. Martha was traveling to spend Christmas with him and made a stop in Philadelphia to visit Joseph and Esther Reed. While there, she met the print maker John Hewson, who had been recommended to her by Benjamin Franklin as a skilled artisan and for his defiance of the British ban on colonial textile printing.

While in consultation with Hewson, Martha showed him some drawings of militia flags and cannons, which he copied, but she still needed a good likeness of Washington. While celebrating their anniversary the next year, the Washingtons received an unexpected parcel. It contained Hewson's depiction of General Washington on horse back – printed on fabric. And the bandana was born in the American colonies.

It wasn't long till patriots were cheering at Washington's image on our first souvenir bandana. This incident marked the beginning of our use of bandanas to promote all manner of ideas and causes.

In the early days, these bandanas were known as "little banners." Besides providing an economical way to promote causes, they were a versatile article of clothing, with uses including as a mask, handkerchief, neckerchief, headscarf, and bandage, as well as being a convenient pouch or bag to carry other items in.

The Washington Effect

That original Washington bandana has been the inspiration for political sloganeering ever since. The phenomenon probably hit its peak in the 1950s. For example, in 1952 Dwight Eisenhower printed his campaign slogan – "Win with Ike for President" – on bandanas and had them distributed to supporters.

Political Bandana, Eisenhower

Then such bandanas moved into the world of advertising and marketing and later pop culture, gaining momentum with imaginative and experimental elements. Bandanas were used to promote awareness of everything from sports teams to breakfast cereals to Elvis. It was a new marketing strategy that you could tie around your neck or use to cover your head.

And let's not forget the early world of sports. Bandanas emblazoned with Yankees identifiers were common. Here are a couple more examples . . .

In 1889, the long-awaited and highly publicized, as well as highly illegal, bare-knuckles boxing match between John L. Sullivan and Jake Kilrain took place. This famous bout was held in a secret location – a clearing in the Mississippi countryside and in 100+ degree heat. It was long before the age of TV, and spectators needed aids to help them keep track of the action. So each contestant had his own bandanas tied to the post of his corner and around his wrists to help identify who landed punches. (An interesting aside: Mississippi Governor Robert Lowry had put up a $1,500 reward for the arrest of the fighters.)

Almost a 100 years later in 1987, bandanas played a big role in the World Series. When the Series was held in Minnesota that year, fans of the Minnesota Twins lined up for blocks to buy a bandana called the "Homer Hanky." When Dan Gladden hit a grand slam, fans in the stadium waved their bandanas and sang "My Baby Waves the Homer Hanky."

This bandana was created by a local newspaper in support of the home team. This happening was touted as a unique phenomenon, but, actually, it had a number of predecessors in the baseball world.

Bandanas for Workers' Protests

The bandana also achieved a prominent place in the world of work in the early twentieth century. In the 1920s, the bandana became a recognized symbol in the struggle for workers' rights.

In 1921, the famous West Virginia Coal Miners March saw over 10,000 protestors wearing red bandanas around their necks as a symbol of unity in their cause. These United Mine Workers were agitating for better working conditions and union protections. The outcome was a 100+ casualties, as well as the impetus and inspiration for the labor movement. It's also from this march that we get the term "redneck."

Moving Toward Today

Since the early days of the bandana on this side of the Atlantic, its purpose and uses have exploded . . .

1940s – During this decade, the bandana became a functional fashion statement among women. They used bandanas to tie their hair back to keep it from blowing in the wind and becoming disheveled. (We can also see the origins of the doo rag in this usage.)

1940s Bandana, Rosie the Riveter

1950s – Besides becoming a valuable promotional tool in political campaigns, bandanas began to be used for a range of issues and causes chiefly because they were such a versatile item of clothing. They could by used in many ways to display an insignia or logo or slogan.

1960s – It was during the 60s that the paisley pattern made a major come-back. Speculation has it that paisley bandanas enjoyed a resurgence owing to the fact that John Lennon had his Rolls Royce painted in paisley after the Beatles' trip to India.

1970s – This is when bandanas begin to serve as a group identifier, especially for people with alternative lifestyles. Often, different colors signified sexual preferences.

1980s – In the 80s, bandanas came into widespread use by urban gangs. Usually, each gang had its own designated color and design (paisley still popular), often incorporating a gang insignia. These bandanas helped foster gang identity and promote unity (much the same as with the protesting miners).

1990s – This was the era of signature bandanas among musicians ranging all the way from country performers to rock and hip-hop stars. Just think of Willie Nelson and Tupac.

2000 and Onward – In the first couple of decades of this century, bandanas have continued to expand in materials and design,

Pet Bandana, Dog

with many options for custom designs and online custom ordering. Fabrics now range from cotton to poly-cotton blends, and you can get everything from Harley Davidson logos to skulls to camo bandanas.

Cowboys and Bandanas

We would, of course, be remiss in our overview of bandanas if we didn't mention them in connection with cowboys. This is especially true because today's bandana is uniquely American, and the cowboy is that iconic figure who embodies the American spirit of adventure and love of freedom.

For cowboys, a bandana was a functional piece of clothing, sometimes necessary for survival, as well as a fashion statement. It served to keep sun off the neck and dust out of the eyes and nose on cattle drives. And cowboys were indeed fashion conscious – from their daringly worn gal-leg spurs to their colorful bandanas tied and worn just so around their necks.

Consider silent-film star Tom Mix, known for making breathtaking leaps onto his horse. Mix always wore his signature bandana, which also became a major marketing tool. Kids would plow through bowls and bowls of cereal to become a member of the "Straight Shooter Club" – and maybe win a prize like an autographed bandana.

"Interesting" Outdoor Uses for Your Bandana

Never think your bandana is merely a piece of clothing or just a fashion accessory. There is, in fact, a whole lot more you can do with it, especially when it comes to outdoor activities. Consider these interesting uses from Outdoor Life . . .

  • Signal or Marker – If you happen to get lost or want to avoid getting lost, you can use your bright-colored bandana as a signal for rescuers or as a trail marker.

  • Tote – Just tie the corners together, and you have a handy tote bag for carrying loose items when your hands are full.

  • Tourniquet – In the event of a serious injury like a laceration, your bandana can be fashioned into an effective tourniquet to stanch blood flow.

  • Cordage – When you need rope or twine and don't have any, you can tear strips off a bandana to serve the purpose, even braiding them together for more strength.

  • Sling – A larger bandana makes a good sling in case of an injured arm or sprained wrist.

  • Washcloth or Towel – When you don't have either of these, your bandana will do the job admirably.

  • Water filter – In an extreme situations, you may have to drink whatever water is available. Your bandana won't get rid of the impurities and microbes, of course, but it will filter out small debris and mud.

  • Bandage – Bandanas have been used this way for a long time (think Civil War) and can still do a good job as a makeshift bandage.

  • Fire Starter – When you don't have anything else ready to hand and need the warmth, you can always use your bandana a fire starter.

  • Toilet Paper – Not a pleasant thought, but when worse comes to worst, a bandana can be used as toilet paper.

Your Source for Quality, Affordable Bandanas

Paisley Bandana

So what's not to love about bandanas? And here's where it gets even better.

At Wholesale for Everyone, we specialize in bandanas of all kinds – paisley, solid color, animal print, holiday bandanas, and many more. Our bandanas have found homes in schools and churches and are worn by everyone from veterans to bikers to pets. You can also get discounts – even on single pieces – in four easy steps:

  1. Select the bandana color

  2. Select your desired size

  3. Select your packaging option

  4. Add it to the cart and view your discounts

We have only one goal: to offer a large portfolio of quality products at affordable prices. To order your uniquely American bandanas or just to discover more, contact us today!


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