I’m working with a client who likes to “dress to the nines” out of respect for himself, his profession, and for his law clients. I was at his house recently and went through his closet full of dark suits and white shirts, his ties, and a fistful of pocket squares that were laying off to the side.
“James!” I said, “You’ve got to start integrating these pocket squares into your wardrobe,” explaining that a little splash of colour in his breast pocket can really sharpen up his suit, adding flair and personality to his look.
“But how do I match them to my ties?” lawyer James asked, “And how do I fold them?”
The pocket hanky is a common dilemma of the modern gent and I’d like to try to make things a little more clear so you can effortlessly polish yourself off with this simple yet statement-making accessory.
What is it?
First, let’s define this thing. A pocket square is the same thing as the handkerchief, hankie, hanky, silk, or puff, and is a square of fabric usually made of cotton, linen, or silk. It should be worn to express oneself, like a tie, and should compliment the rest of a man’s attire.
Sources differ in sartorial background and tradition, so everyone has a slightly different opinion of when and where to wear which pocket puff to what occasion, but for our purposes, gentlemen, we’re going to keep it simple: add a pocket square when you want to be stylish, when you want to add interest to your jacket, and when you want to stand apart. A pocket square is a wonderful compliment to your suit or jacket.
A little history
Research shows that the first handkerchief originated with England’s King Richard II (1367 – 1400), who is said to have used a piece of cloth to wipe his nose. BBC’s London Life explains uses for handkerchiefs during times when taking snuff was popular. (Snuff is powdered tobacco sniffed up the nose – not sure why…) Often, snuff sellers would sell handkerchiefs to accompany the pulverized tobacco. You may be able to imagine what sniffing brown powder up one’s nose does to one’s nasal passages, so the hankies came in handy to brush the powder from the nose and to dab the brown mucous that was generated from taking snuff. (…yuck!)
Hankies were originally carried in a gent’s trouser pocket, intermingling with dirty coins and other bits, and later moved to the breast pocket when men’s two-piece suits (Sack Suits) became popular during the mid 19th century. It was at this time that the handkerchief became a fashion accessory more than a practical nose-wiper. Hankies have also been used as white flags of surrender and dropped as bait by women in the first half of the 20th century who wanted to attract a fella’s attention. (A gentleman would always pick up the lady’s hankie and return it to her.)
Handkerchiefs were largely replaced in the 1920s by Kleenex, or disposable hankies. However, proper woven hankies are much more stylish than ratty, throw-away paper products and casts a very good light on the user, suggesting elegance and care. A fun thing to do next time you’re in a vintage clothing store is to look at their collection of hankies and see if any tickle your fancy.
When you want to add a square, you want to match textures, smooth with smooth, rough with rough. A woven cotton, linen, or cashmere hankie will go with a rough suit or jacket, like a tweed. The smoothness of a fine wool suit could take a cotton, linen, or silk pocket square, and a cotton suit for the summer would ask for a cotton hankie to echo the texture of that textile.
The very British 365 Style and Fashion Tips for Men suggests “white linen is the simplest choice for a pocket handkerchief as it goes with any business suit. Either fold it into a square, or push it loosely into your breast pocket.” James Bond, Dean Martin, JFK, and Cary Grant couldn’t agree more.
Colour and pattern
As our British reference states, “Your necktie and pocket handkerchief should never be the same colour. Do not be tempted by any tie and handkerchief sets on sale in the stores.” GQ stresses the same point, calling the matching tie and hankie route “tackier than a matching shirt-and-tie combo,” adding that men can find “colors, stripes, and other decorative elements in hankies,” so there are lots of choices to play with. Sometimes, you may find a suit where the designer has lined the breast pocket with the same fabric as the jacket, which can be pulled up to act as a built-in coordinating puff.
When thinking of handkerchief colour, choose one that enhances or picks up the colours of your suit, shirt, and tie, but be careful not to repeat a colour more than twice (i.e. a burgundy shirt with a burgundy tie with a burgundy square would be too much).
Matching patterns can be tricky, so with your solid-coloured shirt, try to match one large pattern with one smaller pattern in your tie and square, coordinating the colours in each. Our 365 Tips suggests wearing “a dark blue tie with red stripes to go with a dark red paisley handkerchief or a blue silk one with tiny white dots.” For those creative fellas, this can be quite a fun exercise, so start playing with your wardrobe and see what you can come up with.
365 Style Tips warns, “Never be tempted to use a ready-folded dress handkerchief, or one with just a triangular point. It would be better to do without one at all.” So this you must learn to do on your own, men, but there is no need to feel intimidated. Below are some easy folds to start you off:
Simple square: Fold hankie into quarters and insert it into your pocket. If your hankie falls down out of sight, try folding it as a rectangle and insert the long part into your pocket.
Simple puff: Lay square on a table, then pick up in the middle, letting the fabric bunch in your fingers. Insert into pocket with corners down, pull up to arrange and fill the width of the pocket top.
Corners up: Lay square on a table and pick up by the middle. Insert puff side down in pocket. The corners of your pocket square should stick up and out of the top of the pocket. Arrange for width.
–> For my client who dresses formally in suit and tie at his office, a splash of colour on his breast is very appropriate. Depending on the day’s mood and who he’ll be meeting that day, will he choose a solid lilac-coloured silk, the brown checkered square, or a traditional white linen handkerchief?
–> If you’re a smaller man, do beware of making too much visual fuss with the square and the tie. Be aware that large patterns can overpower a short man, so keep one pattern quiet or choose a solid-colour.
–> I’m always a fan of a coloured shirt under a suit with a pocket square and no tie. To me, this looks really sharp, telling the world about a gent’s sense of style, his confidence, and his character.
There is no doubt that the pocket hankie adds polish and interest to a man in a suit and as a recent client pointed out, “the square really brings the whole visual together”.
So gents, in your quest for style, reach for a hankie not only to give yourself a visual polish, but also to play the part of the gentleman, ready to dab tears away, or wipe lipstick from your collar.