History of the handkerchief

Perhaps considered a simple accessory in the modern era, the history of the handkerchief tells us it is anything but, where its multifarious symbolisms throughout historical culture is quite something to behold.
The Effect of Principle, Behold the Man (Handkerchief) - c. 1806 - Attributed to John Hewson (American, born England, 1744-1821) After Gilbert Stuart. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

When, in the 1930s, Kleenex produced their slogan “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket” the death knell of the handkerchief’s ubiquity had been rung. Once an object to initiate a meet cute, or a talisman of good fortune and sexual intention, it was soon to become an optional accessory lying dormant till, say, a global pandemic were to bring it back in from the wilderness.

Like all the best stuff, the handkerchief’s allure lies not so much in its practicality, but in its history. Whereas its sartorial brother the tie has always played a fairly utilitarian role, the handkerchief is rich in heritage and intrigue that extends beyond emptying one’s nose into it.

At its most sensual, the handkerchief was a symbol of either marital fidelity – handkerchiefs are still given at weddings for luck – or courtship, with embroidered messages and imagery being added to handkerchiefs between men and women in a sort of antediluvian form of sexting. In Othello, the handkerchief – the fulcrum point around which the plot pivots – was even given a more carnal symbolism. Make of Emilia’s line about Othello’s handkerchief, “What will he do with it, heaven knows, not I” what you will.


    January 2022


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