A Brief History of the Male Headband in Cinema
The male headband is a thing of great cinematic majesty, but also of massively unfilled potential. It’s a piece of costuming so dynamic and multi-faceted, that only the most skilled designers dare deploy it. By charting the history of the headband in cinema, I hope that more people will gain the confidence to put them onscreen, where they belong.
In 1984, Ralph Macchio kicked his way to the planet’s hearts with his turn as the eponymous kid in The Karate Kid. But Ralph did more than just win a karate tournament: he brought the patterned bandana headband to America. But The Karate Kid was doing something more intelligent than simply appropriating Asian culture. It was creating a fake ethnocultural backstory, which drew on elements of Samurai mythology whilst creating something that tapped into contemporary sporting apparel. The Karate Kid’s headband seemed to combine Seven Samurai (1954) with Bjorn Borg or Andre Agassi, but, if you look back through Akira Kurosawa’s work, headbands are rarely seen. Early Samurai woodcuts, and traditional Japanese Samurai culture, show warriors using hachimaki, a white or red cloth tied tightly around the head, as a sign of courage. But hachimaki don’t really make an appearance in Samurai movies until films like The Hidden Blade (2006) and 13 Assassins (2010), both from the 21st century. The Karate Kid was, in fact, more influenced by First Blood (1982), the first part of the Rambo series, which introduced the headband as a sign of brimming, sweat-mopping masculinity.
Which isn’t to say that The Karate Kid is directly responsible for the headband becoming a cheap Asian byword in Hollywood. You only have to look at Mickey Rooney’s incredibly offensive Mr Yunioshi character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That was back in 1961, but in the world of 80s action machismo, the headband had become a shortcut for actors to access their inner-Samurai.
By the new millennium, filmmakers were starting to subvert that and make the headband symbolic of something more fragile. It hints at a bandaging, or a softening, of the mind. Wes Anderson has been a huge advocate of the male headband, and no-one wears it more iconically than Richie from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001). Yes, Richie is reflecting his past as a professional tennis player, but it is also symbolic of Richie’s attempts to both hold onto a past that has escaped him and keep the disparate pieces of his mind intact. Richie finally removes the headband during his suicide attempt and it’s almost as though the band was holding in all the feelings that come pouring out in that desperate moment. It’s something that Anderson touches on again in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), when Francis, played by Owen Wilson, turns up on the train wearing bandages that almost take the form of a trendy headband. He later reveals that the injuries which are being treated were sustained when he crashed his motorcycle as part of a failed suicide attempt. Almost in the reverse of Richie, the headband is keeping Francis together after things have fallen apart.
The action-oriented headband usage of the 80s – catalysed by masses of greasy lank hair – is over. The headband has become more associated with movies that lampoon that sense of macho superiority – like Zoolander (2001) or Dodgeball (2004) – or the eco-douchebag trope that we see in films like Wanderlust (2012) and The Inbetweeners 2 (2014). The wry manner in which Anderson utilises the power of the male headband is, perhaps, unique to him as a filmmaker. We now exist in a world where Zac Efron poses atop Machu Picchu wearing a headband that speaks of him as both environmentalist and conquerer, shaman and warrior. Perhaps that conflict is why it speaks so much to the troubled, confused youth of today.
If you have any further headband suggestions, you can get in touch with Nick on Twitter @nickfthiltonby