The Modern History of the Pocket Square

As we have seen, the pocket square or pocket handkerchief is an accessory which has been around for millennia, one which has bore witness to the rise and fall of empires and the endless ebb and flow of fashion. It first arose in ancient Egypt, it was favored by the Greeks and the Romans, and featured throughout the Middle Ages as a decorative item, worn by kings and noblemen alike.  

However, whether the decorated silk handkerchiefs of the distant past can truly be called pocket squares is a subject which remains open to debate. For the people of ancient times - with the exception perhaps of the Romans - the handkerchief was purely a functional, practical accessory. It was used to mop sweat from tired brows, it was used as a tissue, as a nosegay (a perfumed piece of fabric to protect the wearer from the demons carried in bad odors) and as a cloth for cleaning the face and hands. While it was all of these things as well as being a fashion item in the past, it was in the modern age that the pocket square really became an on-trend accessory, an icon of sartorial style, and truly came into its own. 

A Brief History of the Two Piece Suit

In order to understand the modern history of the pocket square, we must look a little at the evolution of menswear in general from the mid 19th century onward. Two cities dominated the world at this time - Paris and London - and fashion was dictated and exported from these stylish metropolises, as it continues to be so to this day. The two piece suit as we know it today (formed from a pair of trousers and a matching jacket, perhaps accessorized with a waistcoat and worn with a collared shirt) came from a gradual evolution of fashion, which has its genesis in the gentlemen’s formal wear of Regency England. At this time, it became fashionable for gentlemen to dress rather more soberly than they had done in the past. The period directly before this was an age of foppishness and extravagance, and the bejeweled decadence of the French court was seen to have lost its head - both figuratively and literally, at the hands of Madame Guillotine. As such, gone were the bright colors and yards of lace, to be replaced by somber colored waistcoats, dark tailcoats, shirts and trousers, and beautifully knotted neckties. However, silk handkerchiefs, often highly decorative, did remain in fashion. At this point, they were far more discreet than their equivalents in previous eras, and would probably be kept in the trouser or waistcoat pocket, and used for a variety of purposes.  

The fashion for simpler, cleaner-cut, well tailored men’s suits continued into the Victorian era, and over the next fifty years, fashions and social codes continued to relax, as did the stiffness of the formal wear. By the 1920s, the suit we recognize today - single breasted, well-fitted, worn with plain dark trousers - was very much the norm. Indeed, it is a point of great fascination and often commented upon that the essential design of the modern gentleman’s suit has barely changed at all for almost a hundred years. Such is the distinguishing mark of a classic!  

In the 1920s, and throughout the interwar period and into the 1950s, no gentleman would be seen in a suit without a pocket square - pointed, and folded as to be pointing away from the heart in the left pocket. The reasons for this placement are rather simple and obvious, really. It occurred to gentlemen that should their fine silk or linen handkerchiefs be kept in the trouser pocket (along with a pipe, some coins and money, etc) it would become crumpled and dirty. As such, they would be kept in the top jacket pocket, where they would not only be safe from damage, they would also be seen. This decision to move an item and make it visible, and the way that this trend spread, was the beginning of the pocket square as a genuine fashion accessory. No longer was it used to wipe noses or clean fingers, it had become a statement, matched with neckties and emblazoned with monograms and patterns.  

Hollywood Fashion and Youth Movements

The pocket square had its first moment of mass appeal during the 1950s, and the golden age of Hollywood. This was a period when the movies had enormous influence on the public, and the idea of the movie star began to build speed in ways it had not done before. As such, when James Stewart and Cary Grant appeared on screen - never without a stylish pocket square matched beautifully with their casual suits - they influenced wave upon wave of young men of all backgrounds to dress the same way. Interestingly, this is around about the same time that paper tissues and Kleenex tissues were first widely used, meaning the pocket handkerchief had lost its last bit of practical usage and had become primarily a decorative accessory. 

From this point on, the silk pocket square went through phases of fashion, coming in and out of style as ideas changed and movements came and went. It became part of a youth movement, briefly in the 1960s in England, with the Mods and Teddy Boys. Both of these youth subcultures involved young - often working class - men taking great care in their appearance for the first time, and their look involved slim-fitting tailored suits, and pocket squares colored to match their slim ties. While pocket handkerchiefs have remained popular with young, stylish individuals since then, it is hard to think of another specifically youth-based subculture which has had them as a central item of a ‘look’.  

The Decline of the Suit

As the twentieth century trundled onwards, the suit began its decline. Indeed, even professional environments began to loosen up, and ‘casual Fridays’ became replaced by no dress codes at all. Ties have become less commonplace, and off-the-hook, ill-fitting suits are the norm. While it would be tempting to see this as the death of the pocket square, in fact, quite the opposite has occurred. The pocket square has actually become more of a mark of distinction than ever before - the perfect signifier of a person of class and elegance. To wear a pocket square, and to accessorize it in the way it was done in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s is to make a bold statement: that you reject the careless look of the present, and wish to present yourself in a way which puts elegance above all other things. 

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, we live in an age where fashion is something of a postmodern bricolage; that is, fashion is borrowed from various cultures and various eras, brought together in a tasteful assembly of color, fabric and style. The pocket square has become an emblem of this - a touch of vintage class and timeless elegance in an age where seemingly anything goes. Importantly, fine silk or linen pocket squares allow an individual to express their own personal sense of style: they give opportunities to pair colors imaginatively and effectively, to play with patterns, or select illustrations which reflect the personality of the wearer. In men’s fashion particularly, they bring a touch of playfulness, color and fun to the standard suit or jacket, and allow a little uniquity to shine through.

We have also seen for the first time the rise of pocket square’s popularity with women, a sign that sartorial excellence, sharpness and great style is something open to both sexes. The pocket square today is a symbol of taste and style, and those who chose to wear one - whether male or female - continue a fine old tradition, which is now in the beginning of its fourth millennium.