Have you ever stopped to think about the cowboy’s bandana, neckerchief, “neck rag” or, as many call it nowadays, the “wild rag”? Like his broad-brimmed hat, high-topped boots and silver-mounted spurs, the simple cloth bandana is one of those articles of clothing that saw so much use by the old-time cowman, and continues to see use with stockmen today, that it has become one of the more recognizable symbols of Western life. Today, as in the working cowboy’s world, the neckerchief is a favorite part of many Old West enthusiasts’ outfits, adding color and flair to the most austere getup. Whether worn with a fancy slide or simply knotted, with the pendants draping in front of or behind the wearer, the neckerchief is one of those iconic pieces of apparel that say “cowboy” loud and clear. While many often wear wild rags primarily for the sake of appearance, the neck rag started out as a strictly utilitarian piece of the working cowboy’s gear. It didn’t take long, however, before the cowboy of the 19th century found so many uses for this little square piece of cloth that it quickly became a fashion statement as well as an oft-used garment.
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While the word “neckerchief ” comes from the French couvrechef or cuerchief, simply meaning a head covering, the term “bandana,” is an aberration of the Hindi word bandhnu, which stood for a dyeing process in which a piece of cloth is tied at various points, thus creating a patterned design–in the manner of the modern “tie-dyed” garments, occasionally seen in fashion items today, but arguably reached their zenith of favor during the Hippie era of the 1960s and 1970s. Interestingly, the word “bandana” was not as commonly used by the 19th century cowboys as was the name “neckerchief,” or simply “kerchief,” when describing the colored cloth they wore around their neck.
Regardless of the terminology employed in describing this piece of cloth that was originally intended as neckwear, the fact remains that it was by far the most versatile piece of gear the cowboy owned. Made from a single piece of fabric that usually measured from 2 to 3 feet squared, neckerchiefs were often sold in either solid bright colors or printed designs such as spots or calico. Red was the most popular hue, but due to its ability to hide the dirt, black was also highly favored. Kerchiefs were usually made of an inexpensive, lightweight cotton or silk but could sometimes be found made from heavier cotton or wool flannel for use in colder climes. Silk was universally favored throughout the West since it was lightweight and cool in the summer yet provided excellent warmth in the winter.
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In the Spanish Southwest during the colonial period—which is actually the birthplace of the American cowboy—the Mexican vaqueros, along with those from California, Arizona, New Mexico and other regions where the early Spaniards were raising cattle, wore kerchiefs not only around the neck, but also as head coverings as well. In the early days, these Latino cowhands left their hair very long, reaching down in back well below the shoulders. For the most part, it was either worn loose or braided in either a single queue (pigtail) with a ribbon tie, or in a set of three rows of plaited hair down the vaquero’s back. Over his head the Spaniard wore a large silken kerchief, bound tightly around the head and knotted either in the front or back. Black was the predominant color of the vaqueros’ silken headpieces, although other colors might be used. Wearing this head kerchief allowed the vaquero to ride with his hat off, yet still offered his forehead protection from the blazing sun.
The American cowboy generally wore his bandana around the neck, often draped loosely over his collarless shirt to shield his neck from the sun or wind, but because of Victorian dress codes, it may have also be worn with a shirt with a roll collar and even a necktie. The cowboy’s kerchief found many uses other than as a protective garment. On an extremely hot day, the neckerchief became a “sweat mop,” or could simply be worn tucked into the drover’s hat and left hanging loosely down the back of his neck as another form of protection against the harsh sun—forming a makeshift havelock, a cloth covering that hung from the rear portion of one’s cap and protected the back of the neck. This garment was named after Sir Henry Havelock, a British general who served in India in the early 19th century, and was often seen being used by the French Foreign Legion and other European troops when campaigning in extremely hot terrain, as well as by some American soldiers in our own Civil War and later. Classic film buffs may recall the havelock worn by Henry Fonda when he portrayed stiff-necked Colonel Owen Thursday in the 1948 John Wayne/ John Ford epic Fort Apache.
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If the trail was dusty, or the waddy was assigned to ride drag, or at the rear of the herd, the cloth became a handy facemask, protecting both mouth and nostrils. In cold or windy weather, this same scarf could also be worn wrapped around the head and ears, or over the cattleman’s hat, becoming ear muffs or “stampede” or “bonnet” strings—or serving both purposes at once.
Whether in camp or out on the trail, the bandana could be used for such diverse tasks as straining dirty water, or as a “blind,” covering the eyes of a skittish horse during saddling or when loading freshly killed game on the animal’s back. If a cowboy suffered a cut, say while mending fences, he had his bandage, or tourniquet, right there with him. If he broke his arm, or otherwise injured a limb, he could use the neck rag as a sling. Around the campfire, the drover’s neckwear was often put to work at such menial yet practical chores as holding a hot cup, a tin plate or a cooking utensil. It could also be used to wrap small items. Sometimes a cowhand might pack an extra kerchief in his saddle pockets just for such uses.
In other situations, it could also find use as a gun or saddle cleaning rag, a wash cloth, a handkerchief, or possibly as a mask to help hide the cowboy’s identity—in the event that he went into the banking or stagecoach business as a “road agent” and specialized in making withdrawals. Reportedly, there was even an instance where a rustler was supposedly hung with a neckerchief!
With the many uses found for the simple but often colorful kerchief, this useful square of cloth was generally worn folded in half, in a triangular shape. It was then wrapped around the waddy’s neck and closed via a knot or a decorative slide of some sort. Incidentally, although some neckerchief slides were used in the early days of cowboys, a simple squared knot was the most common method of securing a neckerchief. Fancy scarf slides of silver, carved bone or other decorative objects and special “cowboy knots” came into vogue in the later years of the profession, during the era of Wild West shows and rodeos. Over the years, I’ve studied hundreds of photographs of late 19th century cowhands and other Western types, and scarf or kerchief slides are almost non-existent in the pre-1890s images. It appears that the most common method of wearing a neckerchief was with it hanging loosely, simply knotted in front of and below the throat, with the scarf’s pendants hanging down the front of the wearer. This makes good sense, since it keeps the bulk of the bandana out of the face of the wearer. When that portion was needed for protection against dust, chilling winds or other discomforts, it could easily be turned around to the desired position.
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The neckerchief is one article of clothing that seems to have found universal acceptance with cowmen and other frontiersmen who found themselves out of doors most of the time. Despite modern range fashions, new miracle fibers, which by the way don’t crease, fold or drape the same as do natural fibers, and other up-to-date innovations in outdoor western wear, the simple pure-silk or all-cotton neckerchief is as practical today for the working cowboy as it was in the days of the great cattle drives. Sometimes you just can’t improve on a good thing.
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This article originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of GUNS OF THE OLD WEST®, print and digital subscriptions to GUNS OF THE OLD WEST are available here.