What’s the origin of pocket squares?

Tailor's tips

Some people believe that the pocket square, also called handkerchief, in one form or another can trace its origins back to ancient Egypt, where small linen cloths were used as an example of wealth. Small pieces of coloured cloth don’t necessarily translate directly into what we would consider a modern pocket square, but it is also true that that was the very first time a piece of cloth was used for a purely decorative purpose.

From the 15th century, the handkerchief started to become popular throughout Europe with the upper classes as either an accessory or a more practical tool. By this point, the pocket squares or handkerchiefs were made from more exotic materials including silk and were embroidered to create beautiful patterns as yet another demonstration of wealth and status. To this point, they still came in many shapes and sizes and the French nobles scented their handkerchiefs to overcome the smells of the time resulting from a general lack of bathing facilities.  

The best embroidery and designs in the 16th Century were being produced in Italy and it is thought they were then imported by Caterina de Medici of Florence into France. These handkerchiefs were considered extremely valuable and were often passed down from generation to generation. The value was often created by the quality and design of the lace being used. The Tudor Monarchs continued this exclusive trend with both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth receiving handkerchiefs as presents at New Years and it then started to become prevalent to give royalty handkerchiefs.

Until Louis XVI’s reign as King of France and Navarre in the late 1700s, handkerchiefs came in every shape and size. As the old saying goes, behind every great King there is a great Queen and it is certainly true in this case. Perturbed by the preposterous proportions of handkerchiefs, Louis XVI’s wife, Marie Antoinette convinced him to decree that they must all be square, measuring 16” by 16”. Hence, this is how ‘square’ met ‘pocket’.

Finally in the 19th century, when the 2-piece suit became the pillar of gentlemen’s wardrobe, the pocket square made his move from the trouser pocket to the breast pocket. Until then it was seen viewed as a major faux-pas to expose a used handkerchief to the public, so men used to keep them away. The major disadvantage of keeping a handkerchief in a trouser pocket was that it would touch coins, dirt, and anything else stuck down there. To prevent dirtying the handkerchief before necessary, men transferred it from their trouser pocket to to their top left breast pocket. This caught on, and the pocket square was born.

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