The Fascinating History of the Pocket Square
There’s a scene in the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia with Love” in which Pedro Armendáriz, portraying the Istanbul MI6 station chief, pulls out his white cotton pocket square from the breast pocket of his suit and dusts himself off following an explosion that has destroyed the office. We were a little shocked by this display (even more than by the bomb that had just gone off) since we’d always believed the pocket square was for show, and a handkerchief for the more mundane and less glamorous jobs of blowing your nose or wiping your brow. We're apparently not alone in that belief since there’s an old saying that addresses this very issue: “Carry two handkerchiefs, one for show and one for blow.” We began to wonder how and why we ended up with one piece of cloth in our pants pocket for the dirty work, and another that we find peeking out of the breast pocket of our suit jackets, sport coats, and blazers (yes there are differences between these three items).
Pedro Armendáriz portraying the Istanbul
MI6 station chief in “From Russia with Love."
Handkerchiefs have been around in one form or another for thousands of years and appear in myriad cultures, from Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to Persia and Medieval Europe, and were used by both sexes. By the 17th century they had become men’s fashion accessories in Europe, but were worn hanging out of trouser pockets, instead of where you would find them today. By the 1780s handkerchiefs had become status symbols and came in a variety of shapes and sizes, some even bedecked in jewels. In France, the practice was reigned in (or at least an attempt was made) when King Louis XVI, at the behest of his wife Marie Antoinette, signed a law stipulating that handkerchiefs should be square, not oval, triangular, or any other geometric configuration. In a horrific turn of events, some of these square handkerchiefs were used to soak up the blood of the beheaded king for keepsakes during the French Revolution not many years after Louis’ decree. We're not saying these two things are related, but it does make you wonder.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette visited by Archduke Maximilian Franz of Austria.
Let’s skip straight to the era when the handkerchief became the pocket square of today. It took the invention of the breast pocket in circa-1830 to usher in the age of the pocket square. By the Victorian era pocket squares were squarely an accessory for men’s suits. Oscar Wilde, the Irish-born writer and trend-setting fashion plate, wore a foulard pocket square with his frock coat, and many a gent followed his lead.
Oscar Wilde sporting a pocket square.
The trend continued into the 20th century. Helen Gustafson, in her highly interesting book, “Hanky Panky: The Intimate History of the Handkerchief,” mentions that in the staid 1950s, that era of conformity best summed up by the ubiquitous gray flannel suit, men’s main recourse for sartorial individuality came in the form of a flamboyant pocket square, “that spoke of their deeper and more passionate natures.”
The 60s saw the pockets square fall out of fashion, and the trend has waxed and waned since then. But it’s back in a big way now and here at Fellow Well Met we can help you with the perfect pocket square to set off your suit and tie, or to carry the day sans neckwear for an always dapper, but not quite as formal, look. We continue to stick by that old expression of “one for show, one for blow” by also carrying in our store some fine and fun handkerchiefs for your trouser pocket. If only we’d been around in 1963 we could have saved Pedro Armendáriz from that embarrassing use of his pocket square to clean off his suit. In any case, we’re here now to save you from the same fate.