Handkerchiefs and Pocket Squares: The History and the Etiquette

For the purist, the only legitimate pocket square is one of white linen; and a white linen pocket square is only properly worn with a white shirt (or a shirt with significant embellishments in the color white). For the purist, only between ¼- and ½-inch of the white pocket square should be exposed, and the upper edge of the exposed portion should be parallel to the opening of the jacket pocket into which the square is placed. The objective is to create a visual and proportional balance between the portion of white shirt-cuff that extends beyond the jacket sleeve of a properly fitted jacket and the white pocket accessory. The “puff,” “points,” and “butterfly” pocket square formations that some men wear, then, even when of white linen, are regarded by the purist as “distractions.” And even more distracting are those colorful pocket squares—usually made of silk—that are color-coordinated with ties, shirts, or jackets. Wearing colorful pocket squares is a popular practice that, according to purists, should be abandoned posthaste. As far as the purist is concerned, if a man wants to wear a “flower” on his jacket, he should be bold and wear a real flower! After all, that is the precise purpose for the placement of a buttonhole—also called a “boutonnière”—on the left lapel of a jacket.  Yes, a man is entitled to display panache, but it must be done with good taste.  (It should also be noted that with black tie wear, the pocket square is always white to complement the shirt—never black to match or compliment the tie or the tuxedo. Likewise, with white tie wear, the pocket square is always white—to complement the shirt, the complement to the tie being coincidental). But what the purist finds especially egregious is the wearing of tie-and-pocket square sets! That, in his way of thinking, is the fashion equivalent of painting-by-numbers. Unless a man wants to look like a dodo, he should regard tie/pocket square sets as a definite no-no—according to the purist.

The decorative pocket square’s affiliation with modern-day menswear begins in ancient times as a ceremonial, and then practical, handkerchief. It would not be until the 1950s that the pocket square would assume a purely decorative role.

The earliest records of handkerchiefs date back to 4th millennium B.C.E., Egypt, as evidenced by the red-dyed linen squares found at Nekhen [Hierakonpolis]. By 2000 B.C.E., wealthy Egyptians were carrying bleached-white linen handkerchiefs, presumably for hygienic uses:  A beautiful stela housed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria shows Keti and Senet carrying handkerchiefs. Throughout the Ancient and Medieval Worlds, handkerchiefs—plain and elaborate, perfumed and unscented—were used for everything from absorbing perspiration to wiping the hands and nose to shielding city dwellers from urban stench. But it was in the 1920s, with the rise of the two-piece suit, that men started wearing pocket squares in the left chest pocket of their jackets.  And immediately, it became unthinkable for a gentleman to wear a jacket without a pocket square.  Before the 1950s, when, for hygienic reasons, disposable tissue became preferred over cloth handkerchiefs, gentlemen would routinely carry two handkerchiefs:  one in their pants pockets for personal use; and one in the chest pocket of their jackets in the event they needed to quickly offer a clean handkerchief to another person—especially a damoiselle in distress. Rather than reaching into a private, obscured part of the one’s garment to procure a handkerchief, a gentleman would, in plain view, simply pluck the handkerchief from his chest pocket and present it to the person in need. But in the 1950s, with the hygiene-justified preference for disposable tissue over cloth handkerchiefs, the once-practical chest handkerchief was relegated to being a purely decorative accessory.  And once the pocket square no longer served its hygienic purpose, it no longer needed to be white—except for the purists.  Over the years, pocket squares have waxed and waned in popularity. In the 1970s, for example, pocket squares had virtually fallen into oblivion; but since the 1980s, there has been a steady resurgence, especially of the colorful, patterned, silk varieties.


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