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What is a Kerchief?

A kerchief may be worn as a headband to keep hair out of one's eyes.
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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2014
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A kerchief is a hemmed square of fabric used as a head or neck covering. It can be folded in many different ways such as to form a triangular or rectangular piece of cloth for a hat, headband or scarf. The word, kerchief, is derived from the French word, couvre-chef, which means to cover the head. The kerchief is also known as a bandanna and is commonly available in the United States in a paisley type pattern on a solid colored background such as red, blue, pink or yellow.

Kerchiefs were used as early as the sixteenth century, but as they were commonly held in the hand to wipe sweat from the face, they were first called handkerchiefs. Many Indian silk kerchiefs, or bandannas, were imported to Europe in the eighteenth century by the Dutch East India Company located near Calcutta. The Dutch East India Company called the silk squares taffa de foolas, or taffeta neckcloths.

In eighteenth century France, the fichu, which is basically a large kerchief, was a popular and stylish accessory worn by women. The fichu was made of linen and pinned inside a garment to cover a low neckline. It was also worn like a shawl over the shoulders and as a head covering with the ends crossed over and tied at the chest.

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The kerchief is associated with diverse groups of people. African-American slave women wore kerchiefs as head wraps when the colorful fabrics were imported from India by the United States and carried on American ships to New England. The traditional Croatian military uniform includes kerchiefs as neck wear and American gang members have been known to wear them as part of their "colors."

The kerchief is considered an important part of the Boy Scouts of America uniform. The brightly colored kerchief was used by scouts to cover the nose and mouth in dusty areas or as a tourniquet wrapped around an injured area to stop bleeding. It was also used to dip in water and be placed on the skin to provide relief from the heat during hot or humid weather conditions.

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