A drastic style shift has occurred within the last few years of menswear. This current decade is now home to countless brands offering meticulously tailored, handcrafted garbs capable of standing the test of time and wear. Opening their eyes to uncharted inspirations, men began to conjure up more and more sartorial experiments that are not only seen on today’s runways but also on our local sidewalks. This transition has lead to a resurgence in traditional design, taking classics that were once branded as outdated and reinterpreting them with modern cuts, materials and of course, a modern attitude. From the Middle Ages to today, one subtle piece that has been recently reintroduced as a wardrobe necessity for every man is the once utilitarian-turned-decorative accessory the handkerchief, or more elegantly named, the pocket square.
A typical handkerchief is a small square cloth made from traditional fabrics like silk, linen or cotton. Although today it serves solely as a decorative piece, its original use was intended for personal hygiene such as wiping one’s hands, face or nose. Origin theories continue to contradict one another, but many contend that the modern idea of the handkerchief dates back to the14th century when King Richard II ruled over England. Surviving documents written by his courtiers describe the young ruler carrying around small, square pieces of linen intended for wiping his nose. Alternative records go further suggesting explorers from the 15th century returning home from China brought back similar square pieces of cloth, which were used by the Chinese to protect their heads from the sun when working in the fields. For this reason, the French called them “couvrechef” meaning “head cover,” which became the root word for kerchief and handkerchief. By the Renaissance, these functional cleaning cloths were considered an essential accessory developing into an ornate piece cut from expensive fabrics adorned with creative embroideries and designs. Exclusive to the wealthy, it quickly became a symbol of the flaunter’s socioeconomic status depending on its material and design.
Up until the 18th century the handkerchief came in many shapes, including square, round, and triangular. After Marie-Antoinette made the observation that the shape of a square would be more aesthetically pleasing, Louis XVI issued a decree ordering the length of all handkerchiefs produced in the French kingdom would equal its width. Because men typically carried their handkerchief in hand or trouser pockets filled with dirt and coins, many individuals opted to protect their unused, clean handkies placing them in their left breast suit pocket, spawning the modern day pocket square.
The use of a pocket square rose in popularity as an accessory during the 1920s – which is said to be the high times of men’s fashion – especially after the introduction of specific folding techniques. This transition, combined with the inception of Kleenex’s cheap disposable paper handkerchief and effective 1930s slogan, “Don’t Carry A Cold In Your Pocket,” led to a worldwide consensus that reusable cloth hankies were outdated and unhygienic. As a result many men opted to disregard the useless accessory, while others stuck with it as an added touch to a well-conceived outfit. Unfortunately however, during the free-spirited ‘60s, the pocket square slowly faded from existence becoming a frivolous trend kept alive by elder gents with an inclination for subtle details.
Fast-forward to contemporary fashion, more so the last few years, and the pocket square has made a miraculous return having been featured in the latest fall/winter collections from iconic brands like Prada and Versace. With the left breast pocket a customary detail on nearly all suits, it was only natural for men to begin experimenting with this useless space adding coordinating cloths.
The spirit of the current fashion generation circles around rule numero uno – there are no rules. Pocket squares are more than an accessory, it’s an inventive opportunity for the wearer to display his personality. From the conservative white linen square to a confident cashmere number from The Elder Statesman available in Mr. Porter’s 1st Birthday Pocket Square Collection, the fabric choices are no longer limited to silk, linen and cotton. Designs have also been applied in exceptionally modern ways, case in point, BAPE’s recently released camouflage square. Many style innovators follow their own list of rules for square presentation, but don’t get caught up on these tired ideas. Some will suggest it be the same color scheme as your tie, while others contend the fabric should coordinate with the suit’s make up. Follow your instincts, wear your clothes with confidence and let your personal style flourish.
After choosing a pocket square to coordinate with an outfit, the only thing left to do is decide on a folding technique. Every man has his own preference and flare, but again, don’t concern yourself to heavily with this minor detail. Take a little time to try various methods and go with whichever represents your personal style the best. Some traditionalists opt for the Don Draper straight edge fold. Others prefer more complex techniques with folding points, typically one to four, which conveys a strict attention to detail and perfection. Lastly, for the gent that never over thinks his dress, there’s the puff, and the crown, or what others call the stuff. There are many more folding techniques used today and the ones mentioned above may even be featured with a different name elsewhere, so if you plan on added a square to your attire, which is obviously highly recommended, do some research and try them out in the mirror.
The handkerchief has a storied history, surviving the Middle Ages and Renaissance and transforming to a decorative accessory with the introduction of two-piece suits and disposable tissues. Given the current focus on tailoring, the pocket square is now reasserting itself in contemporary fashion. This complementing piece has found a permanent place in menswear, offering yet another avenue for men to express their personality through clothing. From local thrift stores to high-end fashion boutiques, pocket squares are readily available with more niche manufacturers developing to help keep this timeless accessory alive. So do your part, add a few squares to your wardrobe, and let’s never return to another dark age of menswear design again.