What’s That A Wild Rag Around Your Neck, Cowboy?

If you’ve ever watched a western movie, no doubt you will recognize a cowboy by their ten gallon hat, the jingle-jangle of their spurs, and a dusty bandana tied around their neck. And, in those very same movies, the bandit bank-robbers usually had a bandana pulled up to cover their face and mask their identity. While this unique piece of fabric goes by many names — bandana, kerchief, mascada (scarf, in Spanish), or buckaroo scarf — I call mine, a “wild rag.” They were and still are one of the most valuable tools of a cowboy. And, even though they go by a lot of different names, one thing is certain. No real cowboy in the old west would work without his wild rag. 

A wild rag is a scarf worn around the neck by cowboys and others involved in western heritage. They are worn by both cowboys and cowgirls, for both work and for play. But fast forward to today’s times and you won’t just see a cowboy wearing one. Wild rags have gone from neckwear to headwear to belts and, even, as pony tail holders in just the last few years.

Out of necessity, the wild rag is born

John Wayne’s characters usually wore a wild rag in his many western movies. Wayne, himself, even had an impressive personal collection of bandanas.
Image courtesy of John Wayne Enterprises.

Wild rags date back as far as the mid 1800’s, when cowboys were known to use old flour sacks cut into squares when fabric such as a cotton was either too expensive are hard to come by while living on the range. The very first cowboy wild rags were worn for warmth in cold temperatures, and for protection from sun, wind, and dirt anytime. In many regions wild rags are still a standard part of cowboy dress whether it be for work or social occasions.

They come in a wide variety of colors, sizes, and fabrics, with silk and polyester being some of the most popular fabric choices joining cotton and even linen. I believe, though, the best wild rags are made of silk. There’s a practical reason cowboys prefer silk — it’s the most absorbent of all natural fibers, giving it excellent wicking properties.  It’s also warmer than wool in the winter, and softens well with age. Common patterns are paisley, jacquards, solids, and printed cattle brands, but in true cowboy ingenuity, most any patterned fabric can be made into a wild rag. Today, most wild rags are in sizes from 30 to 40 inches square or more. Yes, there are wild rags made smaller, but a cowboy would probably never have use for one that small. Why? Read on mi amigo.

Uses limited only by your imagination

When I think about a wild rag, my first thought is of cowboys on cattle drives in the old west. I think of the dust and the dirt, and I realize the good guys often wore their bandanas pulled up over their faces, just like the bandits in the movies. Hiding one’s face, or keeping out trail dust aren’t the only ways a buckaroo scarf can be used, though. Of all the items a cowboy might own, wear, or keep close at hand, nothing serves more purposes than this unique piece of square cloth. So, let’s look at how cowboys use a wild rag:

  • Protection from extreme elements
  • Strain drinking water
  • As a potholder by a campfire, including when grabbing that hot pot of Arbuckle coffee
  • An arm sling, tourniquet or bandage
  • Wiping dirt and sweat from the face
  • Temporary saddle rigging
  • To clean a firearm and other equipment
  • Carrying food
  • Covering the eyes of a spooked horse for doctoring
  • Spread out as a tablecloth at mealtime
  • Use as a napkin when eating that same meal
  • Cleaning up and drying dishes after that meal

And, if you’re like me and live where mosquitoes, no-see-umms, and other pesky blood-suckers frequent, try taking a cotton bandana, spray it liberally with your favorite bug juice, and tie it around your neck in a simple overhand knot to keep your neck bug-free!

“If it’s good enough for John Wayne, it’s good enough for me.”

There’s only one rule when it comes to wild rags

Frontier wild rags are purveyed by many western retailers.
This one is by Schaefer Outfitter.

Wild rags are knotted in as many different ways as one can imagine, and true to cowboy culture, purpose is more important than convention. In the process, individual style is born. In cold climes, the primary purpose of a wild rag is to keep cold air away from the neck, so the scarf is often double-wrapped around the neck and tucked into the collar to keep the ends from flapping in the wind. On warmer days, a buckaroo may leave the ends out to make them easily accessible. Heading to a barn dance? You can tie your wild rag lower. Want to see the local rodeo when it comes to town? A wild rag is a great choice to punch things up. Tuck it in, leave it out — the choice is yours! But, whatever you do, there’s only one rule: wear your wild rag with confidence.

I have a growing collection of wild rags, and I wear mine a lot. While my friends of the cowboy class are generous with their compliments and admiration, the uninitiated sometimes give me funny looks accompanied by an attempt at wit. My typical response of, “Well, partner, if it’s good enough for John Wayne, it’s good enough for me!” usually gets a wry smile, if nothing else.

How to wear a wild rag

Now, the restrictions of time and space, won’t allow me to go into all the ways to knot a wild rag, but here’s a few suggestions of on-line sources where you can have fun learning more about the cowboy art of tying a wild rag:

For those who don’t want to knot their scarf, a “scarf slide” is a popular and stylish option. It might be a sterling silver concho, a slide built from sweet iron with your cattle brand on it, or a slide of braided rawhide. Your choices here are also endless.

Wild rags go mainstream

A wild rag worn with a turquoise scarf slide. Photo courtesy of Buck Wild Rags.

Increasingly, I’m seeing wild rags attached to boots, used as belts, and even being worn on the wrist as a bracelet by fashion-forward gypsy cowgirls. The traditional cowboy wild rag has even been adopted by those who have a never roamed the open range or thrown a leg over a well-worn saddle on the back of a trusted horse. Wild rags can make a plain dress look more formal for evening wear, be worn as a head covering rather than a hat, or be worn with a blazer and jeans for those in the city browsing a museum. Basically, any time you want to add a bit of western style and cowboy panache, I believe you’ll find the wild rag to be the right choice.

Bandana. Neck Rag. Wild Rag. Kerchief. Buckaroo Scarf.  Call it whatever you want. But, if you’re planning to head out west to do any roping, riding, or ranching, or if you simply want to add a bit of style to your western attire when in the city, you might want to pick up a few of these handy squares of silk. Have fun with them. Show the world your personality. Just remember to wear ’em confidently as you celebrate the heritage of the American West.

How do you use your wild rag? Feel free to comment below.

And, until next time, happy trails! ★


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