Sunday, July 18, 2010

Some History, the Bandana as a Worker's Necktie

For working-class Europeans, the bandana provided a mark of masculine respectability at an affordable price. Of brightly coloured and robust material, the bandana did not easily show the dirt, and was quite washable when it did. In addition, the material could be used to form a basket, lead an animal, or mop the sweat from a working brow when not being used to project the owner's dignity. 

Prohibited in England by the Calico Acts of 1700 and 1702, the lowly bandana even acquired something of the cachet of the forbidden, as well as another name - "the Kingsman" for the King's man or customs officer who would normally seize the forbidden cloth.

Soon, however, European industrialists began to cash in on the craze, and knock-offs of the Bengali silk prints were being manufactured at home. Over the water, in North America, the cotton bandana became an extremely popular and affordable common-sense form of neckwear for those colonists who could not wholly abandon the urbane fashions of the Old Countries.
As interest in the bandana necktie became ever more general, the time-worn urge of a certain power elite to distinguish themselves from common men soon provoked the flourishing of yet another style of neckwear: the Incroyable neckcloth.  Partisan politics were again at the root of fashion, and the Incroyables - literally the Unbelievables - were a dandy group of young French nonconformists who expressed sympathy with Republican ideals by revolutionary sartorial excesses.  

They wore strange cravats of an almost inconceivable size: "The shirt collar rose to the sides of the ears, and the top of the cravat covered the mouth and the lower part of the nose, so that the face (with the exception of the nose) was concealed by the cravat and a forest of whiskers; these rose on each side of the hair, which was combed down over the eyes.  In this costume, the elegans bore a greater resemblance to beasts then men, and the fashion gave rise to many laughable caricatures.  They were compelled to look straight before them, as the head could only be turned by the general consent of all the members, and the tout ensemble was that of an unfinished statue."  Royalists countered the excesses of the Incroyables with more sober green neckcloths, which in turn prompted even more extravagance on the part of the Republicans: two sheets of muslin, one white and one black, wrapped around the neck, chin, and face, finished with floppy bows drooped across the shoulders.

Despite the pretensions of the French Incroyables and their affected imitators, it was gradually the lowly bandanna that solidified its position as the neckwear of choice with the fashionable men about town.  Instrumental in the establishment of this relatively sober, practical, and easy-to-tie neckcloth was the most famous pugilist of the early 19th century: Jem Belcher.  Belcher, of humble origins, nearly always appeared with a blue silk peacock-eyed bandanna, knotted suavely about the neck.  Anxious to associate their own male prowess with the cock of the walk, fashionable young bucks and bloods of the day took to wearing the Belcher neckcloth with almost monotonous rigidity.

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