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History of Pocket Squares

From Egyptian handkerchiefs to modern pocket squares

By David Hober

ANCIENT EGYPT

Ancient man started simple weaving 35,000 years ago, and 18,000 years ago the bone needle was developed. In the middle of the 4th millennium BCE the first linen fabrics used for ceremonial pocket squares were found at Hierakonpolis. The linen had been colored with a red oxide powder which did not truly dye the linen. Washing would have removed the red color, which supports the theory that these linens were the first ornamental pocket squares. Linen fibers are difficult to dye and were not colorfast in ancient times.

By 2,000 BCE wealthy Egyptians were carrying the first true pocket squares made of bleached white linen. The Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna has a beautiful limestone stela of Keti and Senet carrying their pocket squares. The stela is from the 11th dynasty, c. 2,000 BCE.

Handkerchiefs in linen's natural color of off-white with a yellow or pearl-grey tinge were also used. Bleaching was accomplished by rubbing wet linen with natron (a mineral found in salt deposits). Then the linen was beaten with a wooden club and rinsed. Silk from China was available in very limited quantities and only the highest ranked nobles had silk handkerchiefs.

GREECE

In classical Greece perfumed cotton handkerchiefs known as a mouth, or perspirator cloth were used by wealthy citizens.

ROME

Around 250 BCE gladiators paraded around the Coliseum in Rome before the start of the day's games. They would stop in front of the emperor's podium and shout: "Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant." ("Hail Caesar, they who will die, salute you.") At that point the emperor would have a magistrate drop a handkerchief called an orarium to signal the beginning of the games.

In 271 CE the emperor Aurelian further popularized handkerchiefs by introducing the practice of giving to the Roman people small handkerchiefs made of silk or linen which were waved by the common people as a token of applause at the games. At this time a blatta serica (raw silk dyed purple) pocket square cost 130,000 denarii the equivalent of $800 US dollars in 2006.

By the 4th century CE the Roman clergy were wearing a white linen ceremonial handkerchief (pallium linostinum) over the left arm. Gradually over the next 500 years the pallium linostinum evolved into a strip of silk known as a mappula (from mappa, cloth) that was carried in the left hand by Christian priests. By the 12th century the mappula was known as a maniple and carried over the left arm.

Through the 9th century Italian nobles were carrying handkerchiefs in their left hands. In the 10th century Egyptians were weaving luxurious pocket squares of linen, silk brocade, and tissue thin wool and silk called Khazz.

In the Middle Ages a handkerchief was worn by knights in tournaments as a symbol of a ladies favor.

BIBLICAL TIMES

Acts 19:12 It states: "So that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them." The term handkerchiefs is translated from Greek and refers to a thick sweat cloth of linen. Blue symbolized purity and was a popular color at this time for fabrics.

THE RENAISSANCE

During the Renaissance the handkerchief came into general use and was silk, cambric, or woven grass. Handkerchiefs were lavishly embroidered or fringed with lace. In Italy they were called a fazzoletto. If a woman was attracted to a man she would declare her love by drawing her handkerchief across her cheek. (Drawing her handkerchief through her hands meant that she despised the man.)

On a more practical level women who were less than well-endowed would stuff their upper undergarments with handkerchiefs to create a larger bust line. Unfortunately the handkerchiefs tended to shift position as they were not firmly in place resulting in an unintentionally humorous sight.

One legend has it that a Venetian lady showed her lace handkerchief while on a walk which promptly started a new trend among fashionable society.

ENGLAND

King Richard the Second is said to have popularized handkerchiefs in England circa 1390. Heavy embroidery done with a Holbein or Assisi stitch in red or black silk was used, with occasional fringes of silver and gold thread. Although popular in the Tudor and Stuart times when printed limited editions became collectors items, pocket squares lost ground to the fan around 1700. In Victorian era silk pocket squares were hung out of back pockets.

FRANCE

The nobles of France began sporting handkerchiefs in the 14th century. These handkerchiefs were items of great beauty - made of silk, often heavily embroidered and were found in many shapes, including circles and triangles. Often these handkerchiefs were scented as protection from the smells resulting from a lack of regular baths and working toilets.

Legend has it that Marie Antoinette complained to her husband Louis XVI that handkerchiefs were too large to be fashionable. So he ordered in 1785 that handkerchiefs should have lengths equal to their width.

TURKEY

Handkerchiefs or ‘mendil’ were introduced into Ottoman society from Byzantium where they had been used in religious rituals. They were woven from linen or cotton and usually had an embroidered pattern. It was only after 1830 that they become square in shape. These early pocket squares were the forerunners of the popular modern fashion of pocket squares having solid colors and a contrasting color on the edges.

GERMANY

Around 1845 nobles and the wealthy began to use pocket squares in Germany. Cotton, linen, and silk pocket squares were popular.

IRELAND

Ireland has long produced some of the finest linen which has been made into both pocket squares and fine handkerchiefs. An old Irish proverb illustrates their philosophy regarding pocket squares: "Always carry a pocket square to show, and and a handkerchief to blow"

ETYMOLOGY

The earlist written record of the English term "handkerchief"is from 1530, although it may have been used in conversation hundreds of years earlier. The Anglo/French "courchief" was used at least as early as 1223. In Old French "Couvrechief" was derived from "covrir" (to cover) and "chief" (head). A couvrechief, or cuevrechief was used to cover a woman's head. "Kerchifle" originated in Brittany and literally meant an old piece of cloth used at home for cleaning. Sometime between 1200 and 1500 the modern term of handkerchief came into use in England.

THE INVENTION OF THE MODERN BRASSIERE

One evening In 1913 New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob was putting on a sheer silk evening gown as she eagerly got ready for a dinner party. She had one small problem, whalebones were visible beneath the sheer silk fabric and were poking out of her corset. With the help of her clever French maid she created a brassiere from two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. Soon thereafter she started to sell her silk handkerchief brassieres but soon lost interest in her business as it took time away from her social life. She sold her patent to the Warner company (no connection to the Warner Bros. movie company) for $1,500. Warner went on to make millions.

FASHION

By the 1900s no fashionable man left home without a pocket squares made of silk, linen, or cotton in his suit jacket's left breast pocket. For a brief time in the 1960s pocket squares were not popular, but these days they are once again firmly in style.

White pocket squares of linen, cotton, and silk are always correct. Yet the confident man will tend to wear silk pocket squares with elegant woven patterns or beautiful prints. Generally, a pocket square should complement a man's tie or shirt and rarely if ever directly match it. When matching a color in your tie, shirt, or jacket it should be a minor, or secondary color. In the early 1940s men did for a short time match their pocket squares and ties. but the world was at war and they were doubtless distracted.

Pocket squares folded with a point are usually pointed away from the heart, although men such as Cary Grant have worn their pocket square pointed in towards their heart. The old rule of not having your pocket square show more than an inch and a half above the pocket is no longer followed. If you have a monogram or label on your pocket square it should not show.

Many men love the look of contrasting textures. For example, a smooth satin silk tie can be contrasted with a linen or handwoven Thai silk pocket square.

Modern pocket squares are usually from 10 to 18 inches square. Pocket squares ares generally made from silk, linen, or cotton fabric. Smooth textured fabrics such as satin silk are generally best made into larger pocket squares as they tend to slip down in the pocket. Rougher textures such as linens and handwoven silk can do very well with medium-sized pocket squares.

CLEANING

Cotton and linen pocket squares can be washed at home or dry-cleaned. The easiest way to keep your silk pocket squares bright and colorful is to dry-clean it at a reliable dry cleaning establishment, one that has experience with fine silk fabric.

However, silk is a protein similar to human hair and can be hand washed with a gentle shampoo, soap or detergent. Synthrapol SP, a mild detergent which has a neutral PH is a good choice. Use lukewarm water and ideally a soft nonakaline water. During the second to last rinse add a tablespoon of clear white vinegar to neutralize traces of alkali. Be careful to rinse out the residue of any soap leftover from previous washings before hand washing, and wash separately. If you use synthrapol SP adding vinegar is not necessary.

DRYING

Hang your pocket square up in the shade to dry. Never, wring your silk dry, or use a dryer.

IRONING

Pocket squares can be ironed on the inside flat area. Be careful not to iron the hand-rolled edges. Set your iron to a low silk setting and to be safe use a press cloth to prevent a glossy shine from developing. For deep wrinkles a gentle steam from a steam iron or steamer should be used before ironing. Also, be very careful when steaming silk as occasionally steamers “spit” water which can cause water spots.

HOW TO JUDGE A POCKET SQUARE

The edges in inexpensive pocket squares are machine hemmed or cheaply hand-rolled with loose irregular stitches. Also the fabric tends to be mass produced with no special characteristics. These pocket squares are often imported from China and found as the house brands for chain department stores.

Midrange pocket squares will have better hand workmanship for their hand-rolled edges and nicer fabrics with interesting patterns. Many famous brand names in large department stores and men's specialty shops will have these pocket squares. When on sale they can be a good buy.

The finest pocket squares will have hand-rolled edges which should be in a tight tube shape with approximately 5 to 6 stitches per inch. As a general rule the stitching should be regularly spaced and mostly hidden. Examples are limited edition multicolored French printed silk pocket squares such as Hermes, or handwoven Thai silk pocket squares, such as Sam Hober's.