Written by Dominic Wallace
A History of Pocket Squares
Origins of the pocket square date back to the ancient Greeks, when the wealthy would carry perfumed handkerchiefs on their person as early as 500 B.C. Throughout history, English and French noblemen also possessed perfumed and embroidered hankies to protect their sense of smell from the stench of dirty streets and the not so worthy.
Legend has it that King Richard II, ruler of England from 1377 to 1399, invented the pocket square. During his reign, heavy embroidery using black or red silk, complete with an Assisi or Holbein stitch and occasional gold or silver edging was most common.
Up until King of France and Navarre, Louis XVI’s reign in the late 1700’s, hankies were made in all shapes and sizes. Disturbed by the absurd proportions of handkerchiefs, King Louis XVI’s influential wife, Marie Antoinette, demanded her husband decree all such cloths to measure 16” by 16”, thus marrying the terms ‘pocket’ and ‘square’.
Kings and queens have often acted as pace setters for fashion and while handkerchiefs of one form or another have been in existence for over a millennium, some fashion historians have attributed genteel King George VI, great-grandson of Queen Victoria, with having transformed these practical items into fashion accessories. Word has it he was a sickly fellow, explaining his vast array of elegant hankies utilized in treating his ailments.
During the 20th century, it became commonplace for man to sport a pocket square to a dinner party or formal engagement. At this time, they still held some supposed functionality, as it was believed that the improvisational nature of a gentleman lent itself to keeping a pocket square within reach. One never knew when one would have to remove an unwanted blemish from one’s clothing or offer one to a lady in need.
The typical social climbing dandy of the ‘30’s would often don a silk pocket square to add that certain je ne sais quoi to their rather ostentatious attire. Not everyone possessed wealth on a grand scale like Gatsby, but there were no laws against attempting to emulate the look of the rich and famous.
Over the years, due to the growth of mainstream products such as Kleenex, alongside medical studies claiming that handkerchiefs were unhygienic and transforming fashion trends, handkerchiefs were rendered useless and soon died out. In turn, pocket squares became less functional and more fashionable, developing into a category of male jewelry.
While there are few hard and fast rules of sporting a pocket square, there do exist a few basics to ensure you get the look you desire. White pocket squares, whether cotton, linen or silk, will never fail you, though to exude real elegance, silk pocket squares boasting patters or prints are most effective.
A pocket square should not match one’s shirt or tie directly, this trend died out in the early 1940’s and has not reappeared for a good reason. Rather, a pocket square is designed to compliment a shirt and if chosen to match a shade within the shirt or tie, it should always be a minor or secondary color.
Rules have become more liberal and it is no longer necessary to limit the showing of your pocket square to the previous adhered to inch and a half. One should, however, avoid presenting any logos or monograms on one’s pocket square. A truly classy gentleman need not flaunt, for it is these private touches that afford the wearer an extra sense of luxury. The same satisfaction is taken from a brightly colored, fine silk lining to an otherwise dark, block colored suit. Those willing to delve further into their attire than color collaboration, will achieve unrivalled results by contrasting textures, such as a linen pocket square with a smooth satin silk tie.
Pocket squares enhance the versatility of a suit jacket or blazer, adding an extra visual dimension and providing and understated, yet forceful means of personal expression. As with bow ties, one can never claim to be a gentleman without owning the knowledge of how to correctly don said attire. When it comes to pocket squares, there are five famous folds and the choice you make depends on personal taste, though the formality of an occasion must always be taken into consideration.
For a simple but effective look in casual situations, the Classic Fold showcases solid pocket squares with colored borders.
The Pesko Fold, popularly worn by James Bond, provides a thin sliver of pocket square, designed for solid colors to contrast boldly with one’s suit jacket in business or formal situations. Far from a must, but white always works well.
The Puff Fold is the most versatile and can be sported anytime, anywhere. It is visually captivating and is easily ‘re-puffed’ to maintain optimum effect.
The Crown Fold, an eye-catching number, described by some as the upside down Puff Fold, is ideal for any social situation. The beauty of this fold is that it should never look too perfect, for it is the subtle variations that ooze character and flair. Never be caught purchasing a ghastly, pre-folded, perfectly set, Crown Fold pocket square. This is a shameful act that highlights one’s complete lack of refinement – the pocket square equivalent of a clip-on bow tie.
The most glamorous fold is, undoubtedly, the Flower Fold and, rightly so, is the fold that requires the most finesse to achieve. The importance lies in forming this fold securely enough to maintain its structure over time. If making a statement is the aim, there is none more dazzling than the Flower Fold.
In the modern era, constructing the perfect ensemble that oozes class and refinement is possible through the marriage of exquisite suit, shirt and tie/bow tie combinations, but there is nothing more quintessentially elegant than the addition of a luxurious pocket square.