Pocket Square History
The pocket square (also known as handkerchief, pocket kerchief, and pocket handkerchief) is one of the tailored ensemble’s finishing touches that is too often overlooked.
Any tailored jacket worth its salt has a breast pocket, and they are made specifically to show off some pocket linen.
Given how easily it they add a genteel flair to your outfit, omitting a handkerchief from any outfit with a tailored coat does the wearer a huge disservice.
In fact, we often believe that an outfit just feels incomplete without a pocket square adding a touch of flair.
Pocket Square Origins & Modern Usage
The first linen handkerchiefs date back to ancient Egypt, where they were used by the wealthy for hygienic reasons, such as removing encrusted dirt from one’s face before eating.
Centuries later, handkerchiefs retained their popularity, with Caesar dropping one 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 & Pocket Squares
Richard II of England (1367-1400) 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 was soon adopted by other nobles.
The lower class caught on a few centuries later. By the time the seventeenth century rolled around, almost everyone in western Europe could be seen using a handkerchief. Nevertheless, few at this time managed to fold it into a pocket square as we see done today.
During the Renaissance, they were considered a functional accessory that was essential to a man’s wardrobe. Over time their designs became more and more ornate, and any man who was considered respectable carried one. They were (and, to a certain degree, still are) a symbol of social rank and gentility.
The Rise Of Snuff
Eighteenth-century England saw a rise in the popularity of snuff, wherein pulverized tobacco leaves were inhaled through the nose like one would cocaine. This offered a quick hit of nicotine and often left a pleasing aroma in the user’s nose.
It also made men sneeze like hell, and the handkerchief was extremely useful in that regard.
By the nineteenth century, pocket kerchiefs were in use by just about every man regardless of his social status or profession. Farmers, cowboys, and other land workers made great use of cotton kerchiefs throughout their sun-baked labors.
The Duke Of Windsor popularized bright silk squares in the 1920’s, and men wore them regularly up until the 1980’s. The handkerchief fell out of favor for a very long time; Ronald Reagan was the last American president to consistently wear one before then-Vice President Joe Biden began sporting them regularly.
Since the early 2000s, the pocket square has thankfully seen a resurgence in popularity. They can be bought inexpensively or at outlandish prices in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and materials.
Why Pocket Squares Are Kept In The Breast Pocket
This discussion begs the question, though: why do we wear these accessories in our breast pockets?
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.
Tissues & The Downfall Of The Linen Handkerchief
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. 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 1960s, 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.
Wearing A Pocket Square With Style
There are so many tips and rules around how to wear pocket squares that we have our own page dedicated to it. We cover everything you need to know about wearing a pocket square with style including general tips, pocket square etiquette, classic combinations, and wearing a pocket square for specific occasions.
Take a look at our comprehensive guide on how to wear a pocket square for more info.
Pocket Square Size & Construction
They make for small details, but not all pocket squares are created equal. First, there’s the matter of size, and second, construction.
Best Pocket Square Sizes
Ideally, a pocket square should be of equal width and length as the name suggests. Rectangular sizes aren’t just awkward for folding but they’re generally impractical.
The most versatile silk squares measure between 16″ and 18″ in width. This may seem large for something that occupies a small breast pocket, but it’s important for the pocket square to have some volume, as this allows it to stay up on its own and not fall into your pocket.
Meanwhile, a cotton handkerchief may be smaller at between 9″ to 12″ in width. As cotton is often folded and ironed to the right size, it doesn’t quite need to be as large as a silk pocket square. Furthermore, when too large, it may be hard to squeeze into your pocket without adding too much bulk.
How Pocket Squares Are Made
There’s also the question of how handkerchiefs are constructed, and the key is in how the edges are sewn: either by machine or by hand.
Machine-sewn edges are cheaper because they can be made more quickly and thus less expensively. They comprise many of the pocket squares on the market and often make excellent accessories.
Squares with hand-rolled edges are widely considered to be the apex of handkerchief luxury by connoisseurs. They’re considered to have superior volume to their machine-made cousins, and they command a much higher price tag for this.
While it’s certainly wonderful to own as many handmade items as possible, it is neither necessary nor feasible for most men to collect only hand-rolled pocket squares. So long as it’s big enough and the material is decent, you’ll look good regardless of how the edges are finished.
Folding A Handkerchief
There are as many ways to fold a pocket square as there are stars in the sky. Okay, not that many, but there are quite a few of varying complexity and difficulty, and it’s important to be familiar with at least a few of them.
Visit our comprehensive guide on how to fold a pocket square where we cover more than twenty types of pocket square folds.
Making Your Own Handkerchief
While we firmly believe in collecting as many pocket squares as humanly possible, there’s also a ton of value in knowing how to make your own. This is a great project to repurpose your beloved but worn-out dress shirts, in particular.
To learn how to create one yourself, take a look at our guide on how to make your own pocket square.
The Different Types Of Materials
Pocket squares are generally made from silk, cotton, and linen. Wool is sometimes thrown into a fabrication, and synthetic materials like rayon and polyester are used in cheap squares that aren’t worth buying. We will focus on silk, cotton, and linen here.
Silk pocket squares are refined, handsome, and elegant. Available in a wide variety of colors and patterns, their “wet” texture tends to look excellent against the “dry” texture of heavy wools like Harris tweed, flannels, and Donegals.
In short, as we’ll explain below, the objective is to use the pocket square to create contrast. The smoother the jacket, the rougher the pocket square!
Don’t blow your nose in one of these. Also, bear in mind that some affordable “silk” pocket squares are also often made from polyester and similar synthetic fabrics.
Cotton handkerchiefs look great with worsted wool suiting and cotton jackets. Also made in any color and pattern under the sun, a cotton handkerchief should be a standard in your ensemble not necessarily in your breast pocket, but as a functional accessory you carry in a rear trouser or inside jacket pocket.
Pocket squares made of linen are the last of the “big three” in terms of material. They wear and pair similarly to cotton and tend to look best during the warmer months.
Handkerchiefs Vs Pocket Squares
You’ve probably noticed that we’ve used the terms “handkerchief” and “pocket square” interchangeably up to this point. The reason for this is that the terms are, well, interchangeable to a certain degree.
Usually, the term “handkerchief” with refer to the utilitarian item used for blowing as we discussed earlier. Meanwhile, a “pocket square” usually implies that the cloth is more decorative than functional.
Furthermore, they aren’t square-shaped 100% of the time. The Tie Bar makes pocket circles or “rounds”, for example. Therefore, it’s often easier to refer to them as hankies than anything else.
The biggest reason that so many men avoid wearing pocket squares is fear due to a lack of familiarity. Thankfully, wearing a pocket square is something easy to learn, though it can also be difficult to master.
Take the plunge and try a simple white one first. After a short while, you’ll wonder how you ever went so long without wearing a handkerchief.
Feel free to take a look at our other pocket square pages and similar resources: