The Ancient History of the Pocket Square

A finely crafted, well-chosen silk pocket square, folded carefully and tucked into the pocket of a suit jacket or blazer, is one of the surest signs of distinction and sophistication there is. Why? Because it shows that the wearer is a person who not only places style and elegance above the quavering fripperies of fashion, but that they are also a person who puts in the effort to care about the details. Pocket squares may be small, but their impact can be significant - the interplay between the colors of a handkerchief and those of a suit, shirt, tie or shoes is one of those things which ties an outfit together, and makes a lasting impression. 

We often associate silk handkerchiefs most readily with men’s sartorial fashion, and most commonly with the first half of the twentieth century, when suits were sharp and gentlemen had little else to wear. However the history of these beautiful accessories is a long and fascinating one, and well worth exploring.  

Pocket Handkerchiefs in Egypt, Greece and Rome 

The history of fashion as a concept is far longer than most people realize. Indeed, for as long as people have been able to choose one item of clothing over another, fashion statements and trends have come and gone with all the certainty of the changing of the seasons.  

When historians look through early fashion history, however, one civilization does stand head and shoulders above the rest: ancient Egypt. It is here we can begin the pocket square’s journey through the eras, among the pyramids and sphinxes on the banks of the Nile. Although much of what we know about the ancient Egyptians is based on speculation from piecing together bits of classical writing and archaeological findings, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these people were very advanced when it came to fashion. Khol eyeliner, elaborate robes and exquisite jewelry and gold masks were all part of Egyptian high society, and one thing which we know the Egyptians did very well was use vegetable and mineral dyes to create beautiful pieces of cloth. Pocket handkerchiefs in Ancient Egypt were pieces of cloth, dyed a vivid red color, and carried as a sort of signifier of wealth and sophistication - essentially, as a piece of decorative material to demonstrate that the wearer is an individual of taste, who takes their sense of style seriously. Sound familiar? 

Moving forward a few centuries, the pocket handkerchief began to have a more practical purpose, and it became something not only for the highest elites in society when it started appearing in ancient Greece. The world at this time was an unsanitary place, and white linen pocket squares were dipped into sweet-smelling oils and perfumes, to protect the wearer from the stench of the streets, and their belief that diseases were carried in ‘bad vapors’.  

The Romans were perhaps even more fashion-conscious than the Egyptians, and their technological advances introduced new dyeing and embroidering techniques, which saw enormous leaps take place within the field of tailoring. Decoration and decadence was de rigeur for Roman landowners, and high quality pocket squares of various fabrics were another addition to their arsenal of accessories. The first truly iconic use of the pocket handkerchief arose during the heights of the first Roman empire, as a symbol of the barbarism of the gladiatorial games. In The Coliseum of Rome, the Emperor dropping his pure white handkerchief to the floor would signify the start of the games, and the crowds would watch in silence as it fluttered to the ground, before erupting in cheers and applause.  

Handkerchiefs of The Middle Ages

As the centuries moved forward, weaving techniques became more sophisticated, and the textiles industry began to truly take off in Europe. Artisan weavers and tailors were to be found in all the major cities which were beginning to be established around 1000 AD, and the great power of the time - the Catholic church - used items like handkerchiefs as part of their ceremonial costume.  

The pocket handkerchief as a fashion accessory began to resurface during this turbulent time, too, as silk began to make its way into European markets, having been imported from the exotic east. Indeed, several of the crowned heads of Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries were said to be wearers of pocket handkerchiefs, most notably King Richard II of England. The influence royalty had on the fashion choices of their subjects was profound - almost everything the king at this time did was copied or mimicked by his court and the gentry, so we can imagine that pocket handkerchiefs were worn by more than just himself during this time.  

A Royal Touch 

After the 14th century, the pocket handkerchief became a fairly major fashion accessory all across Europe. Fine fabrics such as silk were more common than ever before, as were new dyes and embroidering techniques, giving people the chance to once again show off their fashion sense and personal wealth through their choice of accessories. By the 16th century, the Italians had mastered the art of the decorative silk pocket square. Catherine de Medici - a highly influential women when it came to fashion and culture - kick-started a massive trend in both men and women by bringing her favorite handkerchiefs with her to France, along with truly stunning examples for her courtiers, and to give as gifts to ambassadors and envoys.

Before long, the Tudor kings and queens of England were sporting increasingly elaborate pocket squares, and it became almost a tradition of sorts to present royalty with a specially made handkerchief as a token of esteem and loyalty.

According to popular legend, Marie Antoinette was a great fan of pocket handkerchiefs (the French resurrected the trend in Ancient Greece of perfuming their silk pocket squares), but took exception to the fact that they came in all shapes and sizes. They say she demanded that her husband, Louis XVI, pass a decree to ensure that from then on, all pocket squares should be of a standard size and shape - a 16” x 16” square. This continues to be one of the common standards today, but whether or not that particularly notorious queen of France had anything to do with it, is yet to be confirmed.