The Red Bandana: How design can take a simple piece of cloth and forge a revolution


The paisley bandana is a steadfast fixture of our society, but how did it come to be?



“Bandana” is an extremely old word, thought to have origins in Sanskrit. After all, it is, in itself, a very simple idea. “Bandana” refers to the way in which pieces of cloth are tied, and refers to a small piece of cloth to be used as a head or neck covering. The cotton bandana fabric is generally a medium-density weave, for use as a facemask to avoid breathing in dust. Typically used for hard labor outdoors (to wipe off sweat, cover necks from the sun, and as a dust mask), the bandana has long been an essential tool for the working classes. It is a multifunctional, simple, and elegant design that has stood the test of time.

The form of the bandana has changed dramatically through the centuries, and it’s colorful designs and patterning have become arguably far more crucial to it’s importance as an object than simply the functionality of a piece of cloth. The bandana is now much more than that.

The Bandana as a controversial symbol is thought to have started during the American Revolution, as a form of retaliation against the British printed textile ban in the colonies. Martha Washington, on her way to visit her husband George (who was then commanding the continental army), commissioned an illegal printed bandana from a printmaker friend of Benjamin Franklin. The bandanas were disseminated among the troops, and became an important symbol of defiance during the revolution. Following the successful revolution, specially printed bandanas were often made for presidential races.

Since that time, the red bandana has become a classic American staple. Adopted as a symbol of the working class in the 1930s (first used simple because they were practical), the red bandana became a symbol of American defiance, work ethic, and patriotism.

In the following century, the bandana has been used as a symbol of women’s rights, of gang affiliation, the gay community, and many other instances of affiliation and revolution.
The iconic red color of the bandana was introduced to markets in the British Empire from India, and became known as “Turkey Red.” It was a popular export at the height of the empire, and the mark of this extremely bright color is still evident in regions that were once under British control—During the 17th and 18th centuries, this red color was extremely popular in China, the Americas, and in Britain (think redcoats!).

The Dutch East India Company introduced the paisley pattern into Europe from Persia. The original Persian patterns were highly ornate, and usually depicted cedar trees or flowers. The name of the modern pattern, “Paisley,” comes from the town of Paisley in Scotland. The town of Paisley was well known for their textile prints, and were responsible for mass-producing the popular print, color with the popular Turkey Red of the time.