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Bandana: the tie that binds Persians to Rednecks

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I recently found a stash of vintage bandanas to list in the shop. I've long been fascinated by the history of the Persian paisley design, and how it came to become a symbol of western cowboy culture via the bandana. So once again, instead of working I spent my weekend deep in research to determine how exactly this came to be. For starters, the idea of using a small square piece of fabric as a multipurpose tool and fashion accessory goes back to ancient times. Evidence of people sporting kerchiefs on their heads can be found into antiquity. The Sanskrit word bandhna means to tie or bind. This became banhnu in Hindi, was adopted as bandanno in Portuguese, and finally came to be bandana in English.

A Gurkha, a Brahmin and a Sood (Sudra) in traditional garb, Simla", ca.1868
Men wearing kashmiri shawls / Image via Pinterest

The modern paisley bandana in particular has its roots in Kashmiri shawls, which were typically worn by men. These shawls featured the Persian boteh, which is a shape that represents a leaf or shrub, possibly a Cyprus tree, which is a Zoroastrian symbol of life. The symbol is more than 2000 years old and has always been a major textile pattern throughout Persian history.

The boteh shrub design on a souvenir tapestry from Iran, 1950s.
You can see the cyprus trees on this 1950's scarf from Iran / Image by Iylana Nassiri

In the 18th century, importers started bringing Kashmiri shawls to Europe. European women valued them highly as no other material available was as lightweight and warm.

Fanny Holman Hunt painted by William Holman Hunt
Fanny Holman Hunt wearing a kashmiri shawl, painted by William Holman Hunt / Image via My Museum of Art
Victorian Paisley Shawl
Classic example of a Victorian paisley shawl—they were huge! / Image via Worthpoint

However, they were incredibly expensive. So it wasn't long before local producers started mimicking the designs to provide a cheaper alternative. A town called Paisley in Scotland was a major textile producer during this time, and that’s how the boteh pattern came to take on the name of paisley.

Paisley Museum in Paisley, Scotland.
The Paisley Museum in Scotland / Image via Paisley2021

The shawls crossed the ocean, and as they gained popularity among American women, they caught the eye of Martha Washington. She had an artist design a special one as a souvenir of the American Revolution. The smaller size and graphic elements of this textile are what lead historians to consider it the first modern bandana.

George Washington Bandana
George Washington bandana / Image via Heddels

The bandana quickly became a political and marketing campaign tool, and as they increased in popularity, they were adopted by the workforce: farmers, coal miners and cowboys. It is thought that the term “redneck” might have come from the red bandanas worn by coal miners on strike in 1921 (hence the blog title, The tie that binds Persians to Rednecks).

The tie that binds
Fath-Ali Shah Qajar and Duck Dynasty both in paisley / Images via Wikipedia
The bandana

Into wartime, they became the standard way for women working factory jobs to tie their hair back, forever immortalized by the illustration of Rosie the Riveter.

Riveter
Working on a "Vengeance" dive bomber, Tennessee, 1943 / Image via The Library of Congress

She's a Woman Ordinance Worker
Adolph Treidler She’s a WOW, 1942 / Image via the Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies

Since that time, they’ve been an integral part of American culture, worn by everyone from John Wayne to the "hide your kids, hide your wife" guy. A white cotton tee, blue jeans and a bandana has become the most American outfit ever!

https://www.merricksart.com/8-ways-add-bandana-scarf-outfit/
Bandanas are great hair accessories! / Image via Merrick's Art

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