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Jamaican Bandana - The History Behind It


Over many years we have come to associate Madras cloth, or bandana as it is more commonly known, with Jamaican festival celebrations.

But many may not know that this cloth is not originally Jamaican.

However this has not deterred the cultural associations that come with the clothes that Jamaicans make from this material being called the National Costume of Jamaica.

The original bandana, the material said to have been imported from India in the 18th century, was made from silk but was later copied by British manufacturers and put into mass production using cotton instead of silk.

Get ready... here's a bit of history to increase your knowledge of this adopted national costume.

jamaican cultural group in bandana

According to Senior, the characteristic plaid cotton material (with principal colours of red, yellow and white), known as ‘native woman plaid’ and ‘Madras handkerchief’, has traditionally been used to make the head-dress (‘head-tie’) and aprons of Jamaican peasant women.

Historically, is was closely identified as the occupational badge of higglers or market women, although seldom these days.

The Original Bandana

As mentioned above, the original bandana was actually a square of cloth (slightly less than a square metre of tie-dyed silk, imported from India in the 18th century.

The word is derived from bandhma which means ‘tying’ in Sanskrit. The ‘bandana’ handkerchief was originally made for home use and later exported.

According to Senior, advertisements in the Jamaican press showed that the genuine Bengal bandanas imported in the late 18th and early 19th century were ‘spotted silk handkerchiefs’ with the tie-dyed pattern consisting of white spots on a chocolate-coloured background.

Over time, the name ‘bandana’ became transferred to the plaid patterned Madras or Pullicat handkerchief which was worn as a head wrap by working class females of African and Indian descent. It was known as ‘Madras handkerchief’ from the Indian city and province in which it was made and from which it was exported.

When the material became available by the yard, its usage extended from head ties to aprons and other pieces of dress.

African women in Jamaica have always worn head wraps in the style of their West African homelands, but the wearing of the now-familiar Madras cloth seems to have become common among women of both African and Indian origin in the years following Emancipation.

Tied the traditional way, the bandana head-tie usually has two ends sticking stiffly into the air. Although different styles of tying have been identified, the tying of the head-tie does not seem to have been used as a ‘language’ here as in the French Caribbean islands where women signaled their marital status by the arrangement of their head-dress.

Bandana Today In Jamaica

Today, the use of bandana plaid is largely ceremonial and symbolic.

jamaican bandana

Jamaican Revivalists often use bandana plaid to make their turbans, and it is incorporated in a ‘Jamaican costume’ when such is required, e.g. for participants in the ‘Miss World’, ‘Miss Universe’ or other beauty contests.

But perhaps the most visible use of bandana is in the costuming of singers, storytellers, and other performers of ‘Jamaican folk’.

It is also increasing worn on Jamaican heritage days and other special cultural days occasions.

Now you know :-)

By the way, here is another aspect of Jamaican heritage you be interested in learning about: The Importance Of JAMAICA DAY, follow the link to learn more about it.


  • Simpson, Joanne M., WHY Heritage? A guide to the importance of our Jamaican story
  • Jamaica Observer - "One Stop Driva"
  • Senior, Olive, Encyclopedia Of Jamaican Heritage

Comments for Jamaican Bandana - The History Behind It

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Aug 27, 2021
by: Anonymous

I personally LOVE our bandana

Mar 03, 2020
National Costume
by: Anonymous

When you take a look at the Jamaican National Dress you will notice more than a hint of Scotland about it!
The costume includes vibrant reds and yellows and a plaid like design. This red and white chequered costume is often called the Bandana costume which is a mixture of African Kente and Scottish tartan.
Honouring our black Scottish Jacobite and African heritage.

Jul 21, 2019
by: Anonymous

Value is created by something understanding through fact and function and then valuing its understanding and knowledge. The fact is the Bandana is Hindi / Indian and connects to West Indian culture because it was used and is a reality, and modern truth based on fact not on an American syrup and the fiction that makes you connect an image and narrative to make your misunderstanding of fact and its value allows you to see value in your feelings.

Culture and information should be valued for what it is, and not turned into feelings to appropriate comfort at fault of the fact.

Jul 22, 2017
Change the Jamaican bandana
by: j wilmot-Daley

I think it is time for Jamaica to retire the Jamaican bandana in its red form/color.

Which one of our leaders chose this attire as our cultural dress? What were their thinking when they chose this fabric?

In the US this bandana material is associated with a "mammy symbol" or a maid symbol her name is "Aunt Jimmima.

The appears on pancake mix boxes in the grocery stores. The material has a negative connotation.

Going forward, we can still keep the plaid pattern but make the new fabric into a green, gold, and black plaid.

This new plaid can at times be accented or trimmed with other colors, white, red, yellow, green, and black. I think this would be a liberated new move for freeing up our minds.

Jan 20, 2013
i learnt something new
by: Anonymous

Wow. I thought the bandana came from african heritage

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