Has ever such a simple accessory brought as much to an outfit as the humble pocket square? Little more than a square of cloth with a rolled edge, potentially - but not definitively - featuring some kind of design. And yet it’s so much more. It can break up a sombre outfit or tie together a disparate ensemble. It can add a hint of texture or a swell of colour and pattern. It can show refinement or flair - often both in equal measure. Unfurled, it can reveal a work of art.
It wasn’t always such a glamorous life for the pocket square, or handkerchief. Its earliest ancestor - small squares of linen or silk first referenced around 2000BC - would be dipped in perfume and used by the wealthy to avoid the more unpleasant scents of the urban living of the day - a practice recorded across Greece, Egypt and the Middle East. Their use persisted into Rome, primarily as accoutrements to the rich. Gladiators would march the exterior of Rome’s Colosseum before matches began, halting in front of the emperor to proclaim "Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant" - "Hail Caesar, they who will die, salute you." The emperor would then produce a pocket square - the orarium - to signal the match’s commencement.
King Richard II is generally credited with the invention of the ‘handkerchief’, although its function was essentially the same - a linen square for him to wipe his nose with (an ongoing issue for the poor king, apparently). Swiftly adopted by the populace, it became a common sight in Britain and Europe over the next century, used both for wiping or covering the nose as well as for adornment. Knights would wear a lady’s handkerchief as a symbol of their favour during tourneys and the nobility would carry elaborately laced squares as signs of wealth. They found great popularity in Italy during the Renaissance, especially with women. Drawing a square - called fazzoletto at the time - across one’s cheek in conversation would signal an unspoken desire, whilst drawing one through one’s hands signalled revulsion or resentment. Women of the upper class seeking to, shall we say, enhance their assets would sometimes use their handkerchiefs to add extra volume to their bodice. This handkerchief stuffing, however, had a tendency to move about, creating some uneven and decidedly less than natural curves over the course of a day’s wear.
The Ottoman Empire of the 1800s introduced woven linen and cotton squares known as mendil. Mendil were originally religious in nature - on holy days, mendil rubbed on Prophet Muhammad's holy mantle were believed to bring abundance and good fortune, and were given as gifts to visitors. They also were common accessories with the populace, and their gifting formed part of a coded lover’s language. Notably in the context of modern pocket squares, these frequently featured embroidered designs or edges, or solid colours with contrasting coloured borders. Different colours or trims represented different messages that could be passed - white meant ‘I love you’, whilst the dreaded blue trim meant ‘you are not grateful. I am in sorrow.’