One of the reasons that Kapital is such an intriguing label is when the inspirations for a garment are revealed. Sometimes it takes years of wear, internet rabbit holes, or lucky encounters. This is especially true when it comes to their bandanas. Always popular and wonderfully collectible, Kapital’s bandanas have a lot more going on than today’s dollar store squares.
To fully appreciate Kapital’s bandanas requires a little bit of history…
Kapital's bandana inspired clothing from SS20
A Brief History of the Bandana
A lot has already been written about the history of bandanas, so this article won’t attempt an exhaustive timeline, but is intended as a quick overview as it relates to Kapital’s designs. (Additionally, there isn’t any singular resource for this history, but if you’re interested, visit here or here for a deeper dive into the convoluted and interesting evolution of the bandana.)
Bandanas have an ancient lineage and virtually every culture has employed small bits of decorated cloth into their dress and daily use. What we recognize today as the bandana has its origins from fabrics imported from India in the mid-18th century (distinct from the kerchief, scarf, shawl, etc.). These "badhnati" were heavily decorated with traditional patterns and motifs.
Brought to Europe from the Dutch and English East India Companies, they became especially popular amongst the merchant class because their bright designs hid tobacco snuff use. The attractive, aristocratic flair of these cloths gained wider appeal from there. The word then changed from its original form to bandannoe in Portuguese and then to bandana or bandanna in English - first appearing in a dictionary in the mid-18th century. However, these early bandanas were much larger than the contemporary counterparts.
By the early 19th century, Europe had started producing its own bandanas and adopted the patterns and colors that made the Eastern designs popular. This was the introduction of the anglicized paisley pattern that is now inextricably tied to the bandana and the classic colors of blue and red.
Left: Traditional boteh design from Iran. Right: A shawl using traditional Asian boteh motifs from the 1830s produced in Scotland.
The Blue And The Red
Again, dyeing fabrics is too big of an historical topic for the scope of this feature, but a cursory understanding is helpful.
Indigo dyeing cloth has an ancient history that spans the globe. For a large part of that history, colors identified class. Widely available, indigo blue has been associated with the working classes since at least ancient Rome. Although these color cues have seen their royal ebbs and flows, indigo blue (as opposed to the royal blues derived from cerulean and lapis lazuli) has been squarely in the worker’s camp - seen almost exclusively in the fields and factories. It was an obvious choice for the bandana.
Left: Turkey Red bandana from the 1920s. Right: Indigo and red bandana from Kapital from 2021.
The other dominant color for bandanas is Turkey Red. Produced for centuries in the east, Turkey Red is named after the country and was brought to Scotland in 1785 by a French entrepreneur. Creating the dyestuffs was a complex and laborious process involving madder root and alizarin to fix the dye, as well as sheep’s dung, bull’s blood and urine. This odd combination produced a vibrant red that wouldn’t fade with sunlight and washing, creating the first “colorfast” fabrics. The phenomenon of color fastness was a new and valued concept, but the use of the term wasn’t actually introduced until around 1916. As proof of quality, the words “color fast” or “fast color” began appearing on bandanas in the 20s.
Scotland was the textile capital of Europe during the 18th and early 19th centuries and it was here that a parallel design element became the de facto bandana pattern.
The familiar paisley pattern has its roots in Kashmiri shawls. These shawls featured the Persian boteh, a stylized floral motif with religious meaning. The symbol is more than 2000 years old and has always been a major textile pattern throughout Persian history. Along with other eastern motifs such as the repeating floral patterns used as intricate borders and even the fleur-de-lis - almost certainly taken from eastern art (even featured on a statue from a 1st century Middle East ruler) - importers brought these patterned shawls to Europe where they were highly prized and expensive.
It wasn’t long before European producers started mimicking the designs to provide a cheaper alternative. The town of Paisley in Scotland was a major textile producer during the time, and just like how “kleenex” successfully became the name for any tissue, these shawls and the patterns associated with them became known simply as “paisleys.”
Left: Early paisley pattern from Paisley, Scotland. Right: Detail of a traditional Kashmiri shawl.
These fabrics made their way throughout Europe and into the American colonies where the bandana would begin a new chapter and forever be cemented into the zeitgeist of the frontier west.
The American Bandana and the Wild West
At the same time as Scotland’s textile dominance, British colonial rule over America was coming to a head. One of the contentious issues was a forced prohibition on American textile production.
After the success of the revolution, Martha Washington, familiar with the paisley shawls popular amongst American ladies (and in a seditious, patriotic mood), commissioned printmaker John Hewson to design a special souvenir of the American Revolution. The smaller size and graphic elements of this textile lead to what historians consider to be the first modern bandana.
The George Washington bandana commissioned by Martha Washington.
After that, the bandana became a political and marketing tool and was widely distributed. They became especially popular with farmers, coal miners and cowboys. The burgeoning American textile industry began experimenting with various design elements to differentiate their brands and patterns beyond the paisley.
Left: 1880s dice pattern Turkey Red bandana. Right: Indigo 1890s dots pattern bandana.
One of the brands specializing in bandana production that further differentiated themselves and have since become the gold standard for vintage collectors is the Elephant Brand. Produced mainly on the east coast from around 1910 through the 80s by Davis & Catterall, the company earmarked their bandanas with an elephant. The first featured an elephant with its trunk down, but later changed the design to a trunk up elephant in the 50s.
"Trunk Down" and "Trunk Up" bandanas from the Davis & Catterall Elephant Brand.
Top: Detail on a promotional bandana for Teddy Roosevelt. Bottom: Bandanas became the standard way for women working factory jobs during wartime to tie their hair back, forever immortalized by the illustration of Rosie the Riveter.
Kapital’s designer Kiro Hirata is much more than a casual fan. Along with bandana aficionado Jonathon Lukacek from the Bandanna Almanac blog, the pair created and curated the Elephant Brand Bandanna Museum, a permanent exhibit dedicated to the art and history of the bandana and showcases what is probably the most extensive collection in the world. Located in Kojima, Japan on the grounds of Kapital’s headquarters, the collection also serves to inspire the label’s bandana designs.
Top:The Elephant Brand Bandanna Museum in Kojima, Japan. Bottom Row: Kapital's bandana inspired Garments from FW20 and SS20.
The collection begins with the American bandana inspirations from Scotland and expands into the navy and Turkey Red bandanas from the Elephant Brand, telling the story of how these simple discharged fabrics were used for utility and eventually gained footing into the fashion world. The 2nd floor is all trunk down and trunk up bandanas and feature traditional patterns as well as promotional bandanas.
Left: Bandana from the Smithsonian collection dated between 1920-1940. Right: Modern Kapital Concho bandana using a similar motif.
Left:Early 20th century bandana using a dot pattern from the Smithsonian collection. Right: Modern Kapital bandana with butterflies and using a classicly inspired dot pattern, but with an additional optical effect.
The Rat Brand
Kapital’s Rat Brand Bandannas pays homage to this history in many of their bandana prints as well as to the original Elephant Brand tag. Why the rat? The rat is designer Kiro Hirata’s Chinese zodiac sign.
Left: Tag from Elephant Brand Bandannas that was in operation from the early 1920s through the 1970s. Right: Kapital's Rat Brand Bandannas tag incorporating many elements from the Elephant Brand.
Kapital has been producing Rat Brand Bandannas since 2008, taking vintage patterns and adding new ideas to them. Additionally, Kapital’s original fabrics are developed from the yarn to recreate the feel and texture of vintage bandanas.
Bandanas have become commonplace in Kapital’s vast archive. In addition to using bandanas as textiles and patchwork on new garments, the Rat Brand bandanas have become collectible favorites in their own right - packed with patterns, colors, and a lot of humor.
Left: Lee Riders promotional bandana for rodeo star Casey Tibbs from the 1950s. Right: A modern, subversive take on the rodeo design.
Left: 1890s bandana with dice pattern. Right: Kapital Thunderbird bandana with dice pattern.
Top: Kapital Bandanas celebrating Paralympic athletes that are also an homage to famed counter culture artist Peter Max. Bottom: Peter Max’s Dove and Flower Jumper prints.
Left: Promotional bandana for Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential run. Notice the Trunk Up in the bottom right corner. Right: Parody of the same design from Kapital with the Rat Brand icon in the same position as the elephant in the other. "Ikari" translates to "anger" in English.
Kapital’s designs have always had an East meets West tension that are brimming with cultural references and visual puns, drawing from the history of bandanas and incorporating other cultural touchstones. Nowhere is that more succinctly delivered than in the label’s bandanas.
As far as accessories go, there isn’t a more versatile one out there and it won’t even weigh you down. Cleaning up a spill, a quick pot holder, wash cloth, water filter, arm sling, tourniquet, signal flag, wrapped around your neck or peeking out of your back pocket - nothing is as handy. Kapital proves that that’s just the beginning and encourages you to enjoy some art along the way...
Left: Traditional karakusa "winding plant" pattern. Center and Right: Traditional sashiko stitch patterns. All are examples from Kapital's East Meets West collection and general approach to their design aesthetic.