The history of the pocket square or handkerchief as it was originally known as, can be traced back to the bone needle weaving technique, invented in the 4th Millennium BC. Although it is not known what they were originally used for, it is known that these cloths were dyed, indicating that they were used for decorative purposes.
In 2000 BC, wealthy Egyptians carried handkerchief that were often bleached white. These are assumed to be the first true handkerchiefs. Statues of Keti and Senet carrying their handkerchiefs can be found in The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The Ancient Greeks would spray perfume on their handkerchiefs to hold on to their favourite scents as early as 500 BC. The Romans used handkerchiefs at the start of their Gladiator Games, whereby the Emperor would begin the games by dropping his handkerchief to signal the start. The Emperor would give the spectators the handkerchiefs as a gift, which the crowds would then use to cheer the gladiators.
The middle ages saw the use of handkerchiefs in many ways. In the 9th century, members of the Catholic Church would wear a white handkerchief on their left arm to represent their devotion to Church and God. The Egyptians used it as form of distinguishing between wealthy and poor in the 10th century. From the 15th century, ladies would give a handkerchief to a lord, as these were seen as tokens of affection. Knights were also known to wear handkerchiefs into battle to show a lady’s affection.
Legend has it that King Richard II, ruler of England from 1377 to 1399, is credited as the first person to wear the handkerchief as a fashion accessory. He was the first to incorporate it into his wardrobe, rather than for hygienic purposes or tokens of affection. During his reign, heavy embroidery using black or red silk, complete with an Assisi or Holbein stitch, and occasional gold or silver edging was most common.
The popularity of handkerchiefs can also be seen in Shakespeare’s Othello where the handkerchief is a vital piece in the plot. The shape was then defined by the Renaissance period which cut the cloth to squares. Up until King Louis XVI of France's reign in the late 1700s, handkerchiefs were made in all shapes and sizes. Disturbed by not having a standard proportion of handkerchiefs, King Louis's wife, Marie Antoinette, demanded a decree that all such cloths be measured 16" by 16", thus marrying the terms "pocket" and "square". The "Pocket Square" was officially born.
By the 19th century, when the two piece suit came into fashion, many gentlemen started to put the pocket square into the breast pocket and it was quickly becoming a staple fashion accessory in the Industrial man's wardrobe. Since it was not becoming to put a dirty or used handkerchief into the breast pocket of the jacket, gentlemen in this period would carry two handkerchiefs, one in the pants pocket and the other to act as a pocket square. The pocket square was to compliment a man’s shirt or tie, but never directly match – this rule still holds today.
Today pocket squares have various folding techniques and styles. Gentlemen wear pocket squares to give their outfit a distinguishing touch, a sublet nod of tradition or a bold shout of personal expression. The various folding styles of the fabric gives a gentlemen even more opportunity to show his personality through his pocket square. Not surprisingly, pocket squares are said to be the easiest accessory to come by that allows a man to elevate his appearance, with just one single piece of fabric.
Author: Aruña Quiroga