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Origins of the Bandana

With bandanas making a comeback in the fashion world, you’ve probably explored different ways to wear them, but have you ever thought about how bandanas came to be? The bandana has taken a long road to get to the way we know it today, as a status symbol, a political statement, an advertising method, and even an iconic symbol of women contributing to the efforts of WWII!

Kerchiefs were the earliest example of something similar to a bandana, used as far back as the Romans and Ancient Greeks. Kerchiefs have continued to be used throughout history, typically made of linen and kept simple with understated embroidery and minimal colour.

On the other hand, a bandana is a square piece of cotton or silk, printed in a whole array of colours and statement patterns, the origins of which can be traced back to the late 17th century.

Originating in Southern Asia and the Middle East, the early bandanas, or ‘badhnati’, were made by dyeing woven fabrics with plants and materials obtained in the local area. The most established of these early dyes was known as ‘Turkish Red’, made from madder root and alizarin, as well as cow’s blood, sheep dung, and urine. (Lovely!) This odd combination created a beautiful red dye that kept its colour even in the bright sun.

These early bandanas made their way into Europe in the 18th century, transported by the Dutch East India Trading Company. Primarily sold as women’s shawls and seen as a status symbol, the most popular pattern was known as ‘boteh’ in Ancient Persian or ‘buta’ in Indian, a repeating pattern of teardrop shapes. Sound familiar? This pattern is what we now know commonly as ‘paisley’, named after the town in Scotland, a leading manufacturer of this pattern in Europe.

With these badhnati being sold for increasing prices, European manufacturers decided to produce their own, so they became much more affordable. ‘Badhnati’ became ‘bandannoe’, taken from the Portuguese, and ‘bandannoe’ became ‘bandana’.


Popularisation of the Bandana

The popularisation of the bandana, rather than a shawl, came in the late 18th century, during the American Revolution. In the fight for American independence, Martha Washington, the wife of George Washington, had a bandana made of her husband. This bandana, printed by John Hewson, featured Washington on horseback, surrounded by cannons, flags, and text expressing his dedication to acquiring liberty and independence for America.

This is seen as the original bandana, as we know them to be today, which instigated a popular political campaigning method for centuries after, particularly in the 1950s.


Bandanas for Advertising

After the Industrial Revolution, bandanas were commonly used to advertise and market all manner of things within pop culture. This included sports teams like the Yankees, musicians like Elvis, and movie stars… well, Disney characters anyway!

A well-known example of this came from Kellogg’s, which created bandanas as collectables to increase their breakfast cereal sales.

Brands could literally get the public to advertise for them, and they made it fashionable.


Bandanas as a Work Symbol

Bandanas were also used as a work symbol, particularly within two pivotal moments in history. In 1921, red bandanas were worn by over 10 thousand mine workers during the West Virginia Coal Miners March fighting for worker’s rights.

In World War II, women on the home front used bandanas to tie their long hair back when working in American factories, just like Rosie the Riveter on the iconic ‘We Can Do It!’ poster.


The Modern-day Bandana

Today, the cotton bandana is a mainstream fashion accessory as well as a symbol of rebellion. They continue to be worn by people worldwide as both a fashion statement and for practicality, adding to their 300-year old history. This important part of history will live on for centuries to come.

If you’re now feeling inspired to grow your bandana collection, why not check out our range? You can do so here.

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