Many sartorial historians agree that the origins of the pocket square can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where Greeks of a certain class carried a perfumed cloth around with them to ward off evil smells. Others point to the first century AD when Catholic Church officials attached white handkerchiefs to their left arms to signify their devotion. Others still cite historical documents written by courtiers of King Richard II that pinpoint the 14th century monarch as the official inventor of the designed-for-purpose nose-cleaning cloth.
However, is this actually what we mean when we think of the term ‘pocket square’? Is there not some difference between a piece of cloth for wiping drippage from the nose and the purely decorative pocket accessory, often stitched in place? There is now, but this was not always the case.
From Handkerchief to Fashion Accessory
The handkerchief became increasingly popular in the 1400s, when it evolved from practical item to fashion accessory, from cheap cotton cloth to fine silk square. They still came in various different shapes and sizes, but they were becoming status symbols and by the 16th and 17th centuries, embroidered silk and fine lace designs were considered highly valuable, even becoming prized family heirlooms.
It is generally believed that some conformity was introduced in the 18th century, when Marie Antoinette came to the decision that it was unseemly to have handkerchiefs of varying sizes and so had her husband Louis XVI decree a standard size of 16 square inches.
Changing to Suit the Suit
When the two-piece suit became fashionable in the 19th century, men decided they no longer wanted their handkerchiefs mixing in with a pocketful of grubby coins and what-have-you, so in time it became transferred to the left breast pocket. This style caught on and persisted into the 20th century. Handkerchief folding styles came and went but by now the prevalence of the silk, linen or cotton pocket square, either plain or patterned, had become well-established as a stylish accessory throughout Europe and into America.
The invention of the disposable tissue by Kleenex in the 1920s gradually saw the popularity of the handkerchief decline throughout the world, but practical necessity was quickly replaced by stylish necessity and the pocket square as we know it today became a mainstay of the truly fashionable.
In the 21st century, pocket squares have enjoyed something of a renaissance and have become as essential accessory for fashionistas, A-list celebs and anyone who really wishes to stand out from the crowd and add a touch of style and elegance to an otherwise ordinary suit.