If you think about it, the concept of pocket squares is kind of odd: a functionally useless piece of cloth in a functionally useless pocket. But of course, any self-respecting sharp dresser knows that clothes aren’t just about being functional – what’s life without a little style?
You might be surprised to learn, though, that while there have been stylish people around since clothes became a thing, pocket squares came onto the fashion stage relatively late. Handkerchiefs, pocket squares’ rustic ancestor, have been used since ancient times. But surprisingly, in the Western world, carrying a single handkerchief for nose-related issues only became popular during the Renaissance (before that time, they were usually used for wiping sweat from your face, or covering your head). Among fans of pocket square lore, English king Richard II is typically credited with starting the trend of carrying around a quality piece of fabric to clean your nose – or to block it from your neighbors’ foul body odor.
For many centuries after those heady days at the end of the 14th century, handkerchiefs were hidden, carried in men’s pant, coat, or jacket pockets.
But suits evolved, and ideas about hygiene did, too. 19th century gentlemen got to thinking about it and realized it was kind of disgusting to have dirty objects, like change, mingling with your pristine handkerchief…and when a handkerchief had been used, well, they probably figured it was equally disgusting to have to reach past it for that aforementioned change.
(Although dating to the late 20th century, this Mr. Bean sketch drives the latter point home rather well.) A solution was found: keep the handkerchief in a small, separate pocket on the chest, known as the breast pocket.
The suit evolved throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and so did the role of the handkerchief. By the 1920’s, revealing the folds of a clean handkerchief in your breast pocket had become all the rage. Under these circumstances, many practical dandies now carried two squares of cloth: one, a functional handkerchief (once again relegated to the pants pocket), and the other, just for show, folded in the breast pocket — our beloved pocket square.
You could call the 1920’s-60’s is the golden age of the pocket square. Pretty much everyone, from the best-dressed fellow out there, to the average Joe going into the office, sported one. Different pocket square folds were developed to shake things up a bit. Some of these styles were associated with glamorous movie stars, like James Cagney, Fred Astaire, and Gary Cooper.
Today, their legacy lives on, and not just because each one has had a particular pocket square fold named for him: As you likely know if you’re reading this, pocket squares are back in fashion. Look at a contemporary awards show red carpet and you’ll see sharply dressed celebrities like Jon Hamm (whose show “Mad Men” may be partially responsible for the pocket square renaissance), Justin Timberlake, Diddy, and Robert Downey Junior all wearing a ‘ square.