Pocket squares are known as a retro, classic accessory, but you probably never guessed just how far back they go! After starting out as simple handkerchiefs, over the centuries, they evolved to the pocket square accessory we know and love today. Here’s an overview of that exciting evolution…
Handkerchiefs can be traced back as far as 2000BC when the ancient Egyptians used them as a display of their power and wealth. In those days, small pieces of linen were dyed with red powder to make them more decorative or if you were extremely rich, you’d use silk.
Not ones to be outdone, the ancient Greeks also adopted handkerchiefs, which they would spritz with perfume to ensure they always had something pleasant to smell if they found themselves walking through unpleasant city streets.
The Romans had a similar practice and handkerchiefs even had a place in traditional gladiator battles, with each event starting once the Emperor dropped his handkerchief.
Their popularity spread across European courts and even members of the Catholic Church would knot a white version around their left arms to display their loyalty to God.
It is during this period that you’ll find the first mention of the pocket square after England’s King Richard II began using handkerchiefs as a decorative accessory instead of its practical intention. Richard often commissioned extravagantly decorated handkerchiefs with trims of lace.
It was now that the popularity of handkerchiefs really took off across Europe. Design and decoration became more important and expensive materials, such as silk were used by the wealthy just to draw more attention to their status.
Embroidery and lace designs were produced in Italy – something credited to Catherine de Medici – and became so costly and extravagant, they were passed down through generations. They even became traditional gifts to royalty after Queens Mary and Elizabeth receiving handkerchiefs at New Years.
If anyone was going to really embrace this stylish trend, of course, it was going to be the French. Pocket squares were huge in the court of Louis XIV with members and attendees trying to outdo each other with bigger and more lavish handkerchiefs. In fact, it got so bad that Marie Antoinette eventually put her foot down and had Louis decree that all pocket squares must adhere to a 16” by 16” dimension – the same measurements we use today.
A new design emerged during the 1800s called ‘mendil,’ which was actually religious in origin. However, these woven cotton and linen squares soon grew in popularity and became a common choice among the public. It’s a design whose influence you can still see today on handkerchiefs designed with solid colour and a contrasting trim.
It was at this time that men stopped using pocket squares as a practical handkerchief and instead prioritised its aesthetic function. Two-piece suits were the fashion and men began placing a decorative handkerchief in their breast pocket, where it complimented their suit and was safely away from coins that could dirty it. Many men would then carry a second handkerchief in their trouser or internal jacket pocket for practical use.
During this time, advances in technology, such as printing, meant an evolution in pocket square designs and styles. Different folding techniques also became popular, as men tried to build a personal signature style and look original.
They may have been stylish, but pocket squares also had some amazing uses. Allied pilots shot down behind enemy lines used silk handkerchiefs printed with detailed maps of the territory to get to safety. This was because printed silk wouldn’t crease or get damaged by water and would also look inconspicuous.
With the creation of disposable tissues during this period, handkerchiefs were bought less for practical purposes, but pocket squares still remained a popular accessory. There were particularly prevalent among Hollywood’s leading men such as Clark Gable, James Cagney, Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. Many of these stars also had their own favourite folds, with Gable liking a neat upwards triangle and Astaire preferring a dramatic puffed look.
As the popularity of suits waned during the late 1900s, so too did the popularity of pocket squares. ‘Casual’ was the preferred trend and pocket squares were linked to elegant affairs or fancy events. If a man did add a pocket square to his suit for a wedding or important meeting, he tended to opt for a simple plain square.
Millennial men have definitely embraced the once-great pocket square and in recent years, it has enjoyed a surge in popularity. As it becomes more acceptable for guys to take an interest in clothes, develop a unique style and put effort into what they wear, men are realising the power of a pocket square when it comes to adding some personal flair to a suit.
Most men’s clothing stores having pocket squares and handkerchiefs on sale, with designers regularly producing new styles and trends each season.
Here at Mr. Jenks, we love bringing you new pocket square styles with each season. Check out our current range today and add a splash of sophistication to your outfit.