Pocket Squares and Ladies’ Fashion

For many of us, the world of luxury pocket squares is still very much a male one. Indeed, the iconic silk handkerchief, sharply folded and tucked into the top pocket of a suit jacket, is one which immediately conjures up images of certain silver screen stars - James Stewart, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, to give just three examples - all of whom have become synonymous with the very notion of gentlemen’s fashion. 

However, fashion is a fickle business. It curves and loops its way through history, changing with every tide and constantly trying to stay one step ahead of expectations. It is in this spirit that the past couple of years has seen an impressive rise in high quality pocket squares aimed at women, alongside the resurgence in popularity of pocket squares among gentlemen. It seems that pocket squares are once again having their day, and this time, it is not just confined to the men.  

But is there a precedent for woman wearing silk pocket squares? After all, the sphere of ladies’ fashion is one which has a far broader scope and which is considerably more open to flamboyance, decoration, and flourishes of color and character. A quick look at history will reveal that the idea of women using and wearing pocket handkerchiefs is, in fact, far from new, and the cyclical nature of fashion is never far from the surface.

Historical Statements of Style

For almost a thousand years, handkerchiefs have been associated at least as much with ladies’ fashion as with men’s. One of the more famous tropes of medieval literature and the concept of ‘courtly love’ was the maiden who would present her handkerchief to her favorite knight or suitor, as a token of her esteem, and in the 16th and 17th century, pocket squares became powerful statements of style.  

In the Tudor court of England, handkerchiefs became highly decorative items - they had, perhaps for the first time, begun to lose their ‘practical’ usage. It became customary, thanks to Elizabeth I’s love of a delicate and finely embroidered handkerchief, to present these accessories as gifts when visiting ladies of nobility. The fashion quickly spread throughout the land, and into neighboring kingdoms, including France, Spain and Austria, where luxury handkerchiefs were also becoming highly popular among women of high birth.

Handkerchiefs were also commonly used by women in 18th century France, and legend has it that none other than Marie Antoinette decided upon the ‘correct’ dimensions of a pocket square which are still one of the common norms today. Whether this story is true or not, there is no doubt about the fact that she was a great and vocal lover of all things decorative and flamboyant, including handkerchiefs - something which led to her eventual downfall.

Women’s Pocket Squares in the 20th Century 

It was in the last century that pocket squares became the accessories that we know them to be today. The invention of the gentleman’s suit was key, as it allowed the wearer to use their handkerchief as a purely decorative item, tucked stylishly in the top pocket and color coordinated to bring harmony and flair to an outfit. While much of the early 20th century saw very few examples of women using and wearing pocket squares in their modern incarnation, there were a couple of moments in the 1920s and 1930s which saw a certain amount of gender-fluidity in ladies’ style - something which has become highly influential today. Sharp, slim suits and monochromatic palettes were briefly en vogue, and are visible in some of the fashion photography coming out of Weimar era Berlin, and the swinging scenes of Chicago, California, New York and everywhere else the ‘Flapper’ movement was being felt. The pocket square became something of a symbol of liberation for these bold young women, breaking out of conventional roles, and exploring a style which was entirely their own. The 1920s look has been a major influence on several periods since then, with almost-forgotten cultural icons such as Louise Brooks (and other smokey-eyed androgynous black and white film stars) clearly still making their presence felt on catwalks the world over.

The pocket square also made a brief reappearance in the power-dressing decade which was the 1980s, when it became another symbol of defiance and of women taking their trouser suits and asserting their arrival into the world of business. Pop culture took it on, too - singers such as Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics (who claims to have taken her fashion clue from eccentric British artists and fine suit obsessives Gilbert and George) and even Madonna were wearers of the pocket square, and clearly reveled in the bending of social norms and bringing what had become a very male accessory back into the world of women.  

… And Today 

As we race towards the third decade of the twenty-first century, it feels as though anything goes, and anything is possible. The structured ‘rules’ of gendered fashion have been eroded to the extent that women’s style now consistently borrows from the conventions of gentlemen’s fashion, and to great effect. Women’s pocket squares are undoubtedly ‘in’, and it is not difficult to see why. A well chosen pocket square is the perfect finishing touch to a jacket or blazer, and it really does not matter what sex the wearer happens to be. In fashion houses around the world, and in major cities on every continent, more and more women are experimenting with beautifully made silk pocket squares. Matching colors with other accessories - bags, shoes and even makeup - the pocket square can be a striking piece to pull a whole outfit together.  

When paired with a slim cut suit, it has become customary for women to wear their pocket squares with the classic flat fold (most men prefer a pointed or puff fold) as this complements a slender frame and narrow shoulders. The overall look is one of superb vintage elegance, paired with a sharpness, sleekness, confidence and playfulness which is the very essence of contemporary class.