The Symbolic Meanings of Pocket Squares

You might not think it - indeed, it may never cross your mind; but the clothes you and I wear, the accessories we style ourselves with, and the way in which we wear them often have fascinating stories, long histories, and even myths and legends tied to them. Hats, suits, shoes and gloves are rich with symbolic imagery; from the carefully constructed color codes of Victorian England, to icons of luck and love, the things we wear say more about ourselves and the cultures we come from than we may first assume.  

Fashion is a fascinating thing. It is ever-evolving, constantly changing, always keeping us on our toes. And yet, we pay little thought to where our fashions really come from, and what they really mean. A quick delve into the symbolism of certain items can be an intriguing way to develop a greater appreciation of what we find in our wardrobes, and where better to start than with the pocket square? High quality pocket handkerchiefs have rocketed back into style over the past few years, thanks to a fortuitous combination of renewed interests in vintage fashion, high-profile celebrity endorsements, and a sense of sheer sophistication which has never truly gone away. This square of silk or linen has a long and deeply interesting history, and over the centuries, has come to represent many, many different things. Today, it stands for sharpness, a timeless sort of elegance, a touch of colorful eccentricity and uniqueness in dress. However, in the past, it was an item with a varied set of symbols attached to it. Read on to find out more, and keep in mind some of these nuggets of wisdom next time you shop for silk pocket squares! 

Nobility and Wealth

One of the first ‘meanings’ we can associate with pocket squares and handkerchiefs is perhaps the most obvious one. For centuries, especially in the royal courts of England and France, embroidered pocket squares were essentially signifiers of great wealth. The idea of owning any item of clothing or accessory which was purely decorative was - in the darkness and filth of the middle ages - impossibly aspirational, and something affordable primarily by the landed gentry, nobility and royalty. As these people were the cultural icons of their day, they were highly influential in the realm of fashion for the burgeoning middle classes, and as such, decorated handkerchiefs were in high demand. 

It became customary to present gifts of beautifully made pocket handkerchiefs when visiting royalty, and monarchs such as Elizabeth I and Louis XVI were reported to own vast and impressive collections. So precious were pocket squares during the 15th and 16th century, records still exist today of individuals reporting theirs stolen, and demanding investigations and compensation in the matter of their theft. 

Luck and Love 

The handkerchief has been regarded as a lucky charm at many points in history, and in many parts of the world. In the medieval times, handkerchiefs were tied to the helmets of jousting knights, having been presented by fawning ladies and courtiers keen to gain the favor of their preferred champion. The fluttering handkerchief became regarded as a symbol of good fortune, and the best knights would decorate their armor and lances with dozens of fine examples, each bearing the hopes and wishes of an amorous admirer.  

Today, red handkerchiefs are still regarded as lucky symbols of love and happiness in China, where they are exchanged as tokens of love at weddings, and decorated with calligraphy. In Greece, the strings of handkerchiefs one finds at weddings also bring luck to the bride and groom, and there are many stories connected to this seemingly ancient tradition. 

Saying Goodbye 

Watch almost any beautiful black and white movie from the 1930s and 1940s, and the chances are, there will be a scene wherein a woman bids farewell to her beloved from a window, or from a train which is leaving a foggy station somewhere. How does she express her farewell? With a wave of her white handkerchief, of course. Nobody quite knows where or when this habit began, although many historians suspect it also comes from the days of chivalry and knights on horseback, when the handkerchief was very much a symbol of romantic intention.  

Handkerchiefs in Shakespeare  

There are a surprising number of mentions of handkerchiefs in literature, but none quite so famous as those made by the Bard himself, William Shakespeare. The playwright used the symbol of the handkerchief several times throughout his long and illustrious career, but it plays a pivotal role in Othello, arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest works and most devastating tragedies.  

In this play, the wife of the titular anti-hero is given a handkerchief, made from fine Egyptian cotton and embroidered with strawberries, as a wedding gift from her husband. In the beginning of the play, when all is well, the handkerchief stands for innocence, for purity, and for a love which rises above the judgment of the society which they leave behind. However, as the dastardly malcontent Iago plants the seeds of doubt and jealousy in Othello’s mind, it becomes a symbol of her supposed infidelity, eventually being explicitly compared with the sheets of their marital bed, stained with dishonesty and rage.  

Shakespeare knew the symbolic importance of the handkerchief in his time, and was confident enough that his audience would understand the connections he was making for it to be such a major device in his play.  

So, next time you choose a pocket square to match with your suit and tie, take a moment to think of the centuries of symbolism you are decorating yourself with.