At the start of 2020, we wouldn’t have imagined the accessory-of-the-year would end up being a medical face mask. Long-worn in countries including Japan and China as a sign of respect to fellow commuters and citizens to protect them from illness, face masks have become widespread in a matter of months as the coronavirus pandemic has waged on and politicians made them mandatory in shops, public transport and elsewhere in countries across the globe.
While discussions of PPE shortages have dominated much of the Covid-19 news coverage in the UK, the government has not made the wearing of medical-grade masks mandatory, so they can be reserved for those on the frontline. Instead people have been getting creative with high-street alternatives or even a DIY job. A state-sanctioned guide on how to make a face covering out of old T-shirts was even issued in May.
Without strict parameters on what these face coverings need to look like (they just need to cover your nose and mouth) we should have guessed that – just as with the rest of our wardrobes – people would start to put their own sartorial spin on things. In the world of celebrity, the votes are in and a clear favourite has been elected: bandanas.
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Fashion scripture defines the bandana as a small pocket square, usually measuring 20×20 inches. The word bandana itself comes from sanskrit meaning “to tie”, while the traditional paisley design comes from Indian textiles. The first bandana was designed by printmaker John Hewson in 1789 and has since worn by everyone from farmers to feminist revolutionaries. The piece of cloth itself harks back to Western wear: think cowboys and field labourers.
The reason why it’s called “Paisley”, though, is because of the popularity of shawls bearing the design, which dress historian Dr Janet Aspley explains are “reproductions of Kashmiri shawls – produced in the town of Paisley in Scotland during the nineteenth century.”
Bandanas boomed in the 1990s, with everyone from Vogue cover stars and Tupac to John F. Kennedy Jr’s girlfriend Carolyn Bessette- Kennedy tying them around their heads and necks.
Today they are not only a style statement but have adopted a practical purpose in helping inhibit the spread of Covid-19. And celebrities are flocking to wear them.
Take Kristen Stewart, who was recently seen sporting a white paisley bandana while stocking up on beer and margarita mix in Los Angeles. The bandana itself – a monochrome design – matched her equally simple outfit (jeans, white T-shirt, and a baseball cap). Chris Pine offered a nationalistic flex on a coffee run in a red, white and blue one. The actor paired his face covering with a black long-sleeved T-shirt, khaki trousers, and, of course, a baseball cap.
Elsewhere, we’ve seen the likes of Jane Fonda, Margot Robbie, Julianne Hough, and Marisa Tomei all tapping into the bandana trend, too.
But the bandana made its most high profile appearance earlier this week when it was seen wrapped around the faces of Amber Heard and Johnny Depp ahead of the Pirates of a Caribbean star’s libel trial against The Sun. Despite them appearing on opposing sides of the courtroom, both had deemed the bandana the perfect litigious look as they arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Heard opted for a silk, polka dot scarlet bandana on day one of the trial, while Depp chose a black paisley edition.
So what is it about this particular garment that has celebrities fawning over it as opposed to the numerous coronavirus masks that are being designed and on sale everywhere you look? Has the pandemic turned our lives upside down to the extent where we’re all going to start wearing bandanas over our faces as if it’s a legitimate fashion trend?
Fashion historians are not surprised by the bandana’s resurgence. “It makes sense,” says Dr Nicola Ashmore, principle design lecturer at the University of Brighton. “A square of cloth once used to protect from the harsh dusty environment of the plains is now being used as a token of defence to protect against an invisible and very real threat: Covid-19.”
Bandanas also have a history of conveying political messages, adds Dr Aspley. And goodness knows this pandemic has been anything but apolitical. “Famously, George Washington’s wife Martha commissioned the printer John Hewson to print a bandana with Washington’s image in 1775 – a real source of the garment’s ‘Americanism’,” she says. “Western stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry also had western themed printed bandanas as part of their merchandise available to fans.
Western-style clothing has been returning to the catwalk for some time, with Raf Simons’ famously bringing the aesthetic back to Calvin Klein when he was creative director there in 2017. Other designers who have recently been inspired by the cowboy look – think chunky knee-high boots and cow print skirts – include Chloe, Balmain and heritage American brand Ralph Lauren.
All things considered, then, it looks like the bandana is making its way back into our sartorial sphere, whether we like it or not. It’s not clear how much protection bandanas offer with regards to catching or spreading Covid-19. Surgical grade N95 respirators offer the highest level of protection against the virus, followed by surgical grade masks, but those should be reserved for doctors and nurses working on the frontline.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a tight-fitting paper or cloth mask is good, too, and so is a bandana, but only if you’ve used the material as a base to make your own tight-fitting mask. Simply loosely tying one around your face is not going to do a huge amount to protect you or others, it seems.
Sure, face masks may not be the sexiest of accessories, but they are certainly the safest. And even the most fashion-forward celebrities should know that’s the most important thing to prioritise right now.