The pocket square is an almost daily accessory for me (see my Instagram @bespokeunit). It adds that bit of class, and can bring an entire outfit together and to another level.

But as previously mentioned in my article on the history of boutonnieres / lapel pins, it’s good to know where these classic men’s accessories came from. This base understanding of knowledge allows us to add our own unique sartorial twist, make it our own, and step out in style & confidence.

Collection Of Best Pocket Squares

Flowing this article I shall be writing posts on “Rules & How To Wear Pocket Squares” in a three part series (links will be activated below as content is written):

  1. Part 1: Basic “Rules” On How To Wear & Fold A Pocket Square
  2. Part 2: Taking Your Pocket Square Game To The Next Level
  3. Part 3: Breaking The Pocket Squares Rules & Making Your Own Style

For now however, lets dive into a brief history of the pocket square.

Ancient History Of The Pocket Square / Hankey

The first linen handkerchiefs date back to ancient Egypt, where they were used by the wealthy for hygienic reasons, such as to remove encrusted dirt from one’s face before eating. The tradition continued through centuries, with Caesar dropping a handkerchief to signal the start of games at the Coliseum in Rome. During the medieval period, knights would frequently ride with a handkerchief as proof of a lady’s favor. However, the handkerchief didn’t become a pocket square until the middle of the 14th century.

Richard II

Richard II of England is said to be the “inventor” of the pocket square. He kept a square handkerchief on his person at all times, using it to clean his nose and face as necessary. Maintaining an excellent appearance was required by lords and ladies, and the handkerchief / pocket square was soon adopted by other nobles. The lower class caught on a few centuries later, and by the time the 17th century rolled around, almost everyone in western Europe could be seen using a handkerchief – though few at this time managed to fold it into a pocket square as we know / see today.

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In the Pocket

Prior to making their move to the breast pocket, handkerchiefs were kept in the trouser pocket. This was for more than utilitarian purposes – it was seen viewed as a major faux-pas to expose a used handkerchief to the public. As such, men kept them hidden away, and the handkerchief didn’t turn into the more popular pocket square until two piece suits started to come into fashion during the 19th century.

The major disadvantage of keeping a handkerchief in a trouser pocket was that it would touch coins, dirt, and anything else stuck down there. Essentially, the handkerchief would be dirty before it was ever used. To prevent dirtying the handkerchief before necessary, men moved it from their trouser pocket to the breast pocket of their suit. This caught on, and the pocket square was born. Note that once the handkerchief was used, men would return it to their trouser pocket.

Pocket Square Folding Techniques

In the 1920s, folding techniques forever changed the handkerchief’s place in fashion. Instead of seeing the breast pocket as a clean place to keep a handkerchief, the pocket square became a stylistic statement rather than a utilitarian one. In an interesting twist, men started to keep a separate handkerchief in their trousers to wipe their nose with, while leaving the pocket square untouched.

The Disposable Tissue = Decorative Shift Of The Pocket Square

Shortly after World War II, linen handkerchiefs fell out of favor. The idea of cleaning your nose with a handkerchief and then shoving it – and all the germs on it – into your pocket became repulsive. Thus, Kleenex and other disposable tissue companies were formed. At this point, the pocket square mostly became a fashion statement only, no longer having any utilitarian purpose as it once did.

Resurgence Of The Pocket Square

As jeans and t-shirts began to replace suits and ties, the pocket square fell out of favor. It had no place on a plainer shirt, and in fact, few shirts had a pocket to hold it. For a few decades, you’d only find the pocket square – usually poorly folded – at weddings and proms. However, thanks to the fashion strength of GQ Magazine and television shows set in the 1950’s, such as Mad Men, the pocket square has surged in popularity. With a variety of folding styles and different materials, the pocket square has returned to the forefront of men’s fashion.

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Look out for our upcoming three part series on the “rules” of wearing pocket squares.

About the Author:

Paul Anthony is the founder and creative director at Bespoke Unit. He has had a life long affair with design, watches, fragrance and clothing. Originally from England, he now lives in the USA splitting time between NYC & Philly. Favoring "British Style", but has an overall eclectic taste.

4 Comments

  1. Stephanie Alcorn September 16, 2013 at 12:40 pm - Reply

    I’ve always loved pocket squares, for adding extra color to a suit. My boyfriend will definitely be getting some this Christmas!

    • Paul September 24, 2013 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      Dear Stephanie,

      Thanks, they definitely take an outfit to the next level! Sounds like a lucky guy!

  2. Charles-Philippe Bowles September 24, 2013 at 6:11 pm - Reply

    Wonderful article. I love how you take a look at the origins and history of the pocket square.

    • Paul September 24, 2013 at 8:44 pm - Reply

      Dear Charles-Philippe,

      Thanks! That’s one of the aims of Bespoke Unit, placing what we wear in historical context.

      Gotsome great content writers and content coming soon….so watch this space!

      – Paul

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