The Romantic History of the Pocket Square

Is there a finer finishing touch to an outfit than a well-folded pocket square? This small yet significant piece of fine silk, nowadays seen tucked into the jacket pockets of those stylish enough to wear one, has represented many things over the years to many different people, and in many different cultures. However, one thing has been constant: it has always symbolized the act of going the extra mile, making that little bit of extra effort in order to express one’s sense of style and taste.  

While today, in the twenty-first century, the silk pocket square is mostly associated with gentlemen’s formal wear and a particularly sophisticated, somewhat vintage fashion sense, this has not always been the case. Handkerchiefs have been a potent symbol of love over the centuries, and are perhaps one of the only romantic symbols which traverses the ages and is found across both the east and the west. Passionate uses of fine pocket squares have been recorded everywhere from ancient China, through Turkey, France, and into the English Middle Ages and beyond. They have popped up in medieval ballads as symbols of forbidden love, Shakespeare used a strawberry-spotted one as a major plot device, they have initiated jealous feuds and have been dropped hopefully at the feet of thousands of paramours throughout history.  

Quite why the pocket handkerchief is such a constant symbol associated with love and passion is open to debate. Some claim it is because they were typically kept close to the heart - either in a gentleman’s top pocket, or in a lady’s cleavage. Others state it is because they symbolize the marital bedsheets, or that they can carry a person’s scent. Whatever the real reason may be, there is no doubt that the pocket square bears the weight of a million romances upon it, gathered across the eras. Here are a few of our favorite examples: 

Courtly Love in The Middle Ages 

Pocket handkerchiefs first became truly fashionable in Europe during the 14th century, thanks to King Richard II, who was particularly fond of his collection of embroidered pocket squares. There are plenty of records from these times which tell of a particular practice involving handkerchiefs: women would offer them as ‘favors’ to their favorite knights or noblemen, essentially a sign of romantic interest or admiration. These ‘couvrechiefs’ would have been worn on the lady’s head, and so would - we imagine - still bear her scent on presentation to the gentleman in question.  

Love in the 16th Century 

The practice of giving handkerchiefs as gifts reached its zenith during the golden age of English romance - the Tudor era. While King Henry VIII is now most commonly remembered as a less-than-ideal husband (beheading two out of six wives is never a great sign), a young man he was remarkably handsome, artistically accomplished and deeply interested in romance. He viewed the exchanging of handkerchiefs as a significant gesture of passion, and is said to have once flew into a jealous rage when he was secretly courting Anne Boleyn, and a rival suitor took her handkerchief and mopped his sweaty brow with it.

Henry’s younger daughter, Elizabeth (the so-called ‘virgin queen’) was an avid collector of silk pocket squares, and is said to have amassed a remarkable collection of the most exquisitely embroidered examples, given as gifts from the men who fell at her feet to be considered a potential husband. She never married, but the handkerchiefs kept coming until she was well into old age.  

Victorian Codes of Passion 

The Victorians and those who came directly before them were the masters of the coded love message. This was a time of extreme rules of social etiquette, when a young woman’s entire future could be ruined should she be spotted unchaperoned in the company of a gentleman. As such, elaborate ways of leaving clues and secret forms of communication arose, mainly via the medium of silk and linen pocket squares. The handkerchief suddenly developed its own language, and was an effective tool for expressing affection and desire for another, without arousing the suspicions of the elders in the room. Examples of this pocket square-code included: 

  • Passing a handkerchief across one’s cheek: I love you
  • Passing one over the forehead: watch out! We’re being watched!
  • Passing it over the eyes: forgive me
  • Folding it in the hands: I want to talk to you
  • Resting it on the left cheek: no
  • Resting it on the right cheek: yes
  • Placing it on the shoulder: follow me
  • Putting it in the pocket: no more romance now, please
  • Twisting it in the right hand: I am in love with another
  • Winding it around the forefinger: I am engaged to another
  • Winding it around the ring finger: I am married to another 

As you can see, this coded language became enormously elaborate, and somehow spread around the middle and upper classes during the late 18th and early 19th century as an effective means of subtle, flirtatious communication. The Victorians were also very interested in the symbolism of color, and along with giving gifts of colored roses - each with a specific ‘meaning’ - they’d present pocket handkerchiefs whose colors would convey messages to secret loves or admirers. A white handkerchief represented cautious admiration, a red one conveyed wholehearted love. However, it did not merely end there. A green-cornered pocket square represented loyalty, a fully green one was sent as a reminder to reply to a love letter. A blue handkerchief meant sorrow, and a yellow one apologized for a period of illness, during which time the sender could not go outside. Romantic, maybe. Complicated, undoubtedly! 

Pocket Squares and Weddings 

The other key significance of the handkerchief in regards to romance is to do with that ultimate expression of public affection: marriage. It is still very common for wives to present their husbands with monogrammed handkerchiefs on their wedding day, as an echo of those older gestures of romance. It seems to be a practice which has global relevance, too - Irish brides traditionally tuck a handkerchief into their sleeve on their wedding day, something which is stitched into a bonnet on the advent of their first daughter’s birthday. In China, married couples exchange lucky red pocket squares, and in Greece, no wedding is complete without a ‘handkerchief dance’ in which the wedding party is joined in song by holding a pocket square between themselves.  

So there you have it - all over the world, and all throughout history, these simple squares of fabric have taken on a meaning which is far beyond the sum of their parts.