As a New Year dawns, what better way to commemorate it than by thinking about a very old item of clothing?
Pocket handkerchiefs have been around for a long time. Popular convention suggests that they were invented by Richard II of England; there are written reports from courtiers that he used square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. Over the centuries, their use permeated through polite society. Distinctions were drawn between socioeconomic classes by the materials used and the amount of decorative embellishment present.
Their use as a style accessory is more recent, stemming from the early part of the 20th century. The tradition is thought to have begun from the habit of placing a clean linen handkerchief in the breast pocket of a jacket to keep it free of dirt. After it was used, it would be rotated to the trouser pocket and washed after use. Its prominence in the breast pocket inevitably affected one’s overall appearance, and led to the development of different decorative folds and its manufacture in more luxurious materials such as silk.
Unsurprisingly, these more expensive items became purely decorative: the pocket square. Practical handkerchief use continued in its traditional trouser pocket home, but the development of disposable paper tissues by Kleenex in the 1950s led to their too becoming rarer.
Pocket squares are very eye-catching with their anti-utilitarian quality making their presence a magnet for others to project their unconscious preconceptions onto you. At its most basic, anyone wearing a square will almost certainly give off the impression of being careful with their appearance. This can be a positive: someone who cares about such things may well be conscientious about other things too. But it can be construed negatively as someone who is self-absorbed and lacking in empathy. Care should be taken in one’s manner, speech, and overall appearance to reinforce the positive preconceptions.
The different materials and folds also impact how you may be seen. Plain white linen, folded square, has gained recent popularity due to its omnipresence in TV series Mad Men. While it is traditionally associated with establishment authority and conventionality, its fashionable popularity contaminates that message. Futher complicating this is the waning of the slim 60s look in more recent menswear collections, risking the fatal presumption by viewers of your not just having an interest in fashion, but also being behind the latest fashions! Wearing it with more typically-cut jackets/suits neutralises the appearance of following a fading 60s trend, and instead resonates with the older establishment image.
Silk squares, available in a dazzling variety of patterns and colours, are shown to their best effect in a puff fold or with the points showing. Their relative fluidity of appearance can counteract the sterness of a business suit, and their luxury mitigates the rusticity of a tweed. They are less serious than square folded white linen, allowing the projection of a softer, gentler image with the risk of appearing frivolous or louche. The less that is visible, the less likely it is that those flipside traits will be perceived. Complementary rather than contrasting colours to the rest of your outfit also help to project a soft and thoughtful image. Of course, which persona you wish to project is entirely up to you; personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for (occasionally) appearing a bit frivolous!
Judicious use of the pocket square can help you forge a useful identity. Imprudent use risks your projecting a far less helpful image. Understanding your target audience and your purpose when meeting them will help you to choose wisely.
The illustrating photo was taken earlier today. The pocket square is from Battistoni of Rome, worn in a loose puff fold against a tweed jacket with brown staghorn buttons, cashmere v-neck jumper in a similar brown to the buttons, and an oxford-weave button-collar shirt. Not pictured are flannel trousers in a somewhat duller green than the square and chelsea boots in a similar brown to the jacket. The square therefore picks up colours from the jumper, the trousers, and the jacket.