One of the true fashion innovations of the sixteenth century was the introduction of the handkerchief as a fashion accessory. Handkerchiefs themselves were not new; people had been carrying a small cloth for blowing their nose for years. These soiled items, however, were kept tucked away out of sight, causing uncertainty as to when the first handkerchief was actually invented. In the sixteenth century, however, the handkerchief came out of the pocket and into public scrutiny. The same women who dressed in exquisite silk gowns with delicate lace ruffs, or collars, and cuffs had their tailors add lace or a scalloped edge to a fine linen cloth and elevated the handkerchief to the status of fashion accessory. A fine lacy handkerchief, or hanky, was not tucked away in a pocket but held in the hand or draped coyly across the arm. It might be matched with a fan or another accessory.
Handkerchiefs have remained a fashion accessory ever since. It is rumored in fashion history that Frenchwoman Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) was frustrated that handkerchiefs were offered in so many shapes: round, oval, rectangular, and so on. Her husband, King Louis XVI of France (1754–1793), made it a law that all handkerchiefs must be square, and they have remained square ever since. During the twentieth century it became fashionable for men to place a handkerchief in the left breast pocket of their suit coat with just an inch of the fabric sticking out of the pocket. Carefully folded and ironed, these breast-pocket handkerchiefs could come in a variety of colors, though white was preferred. Though people no longer dangle a handkerchief from their hand as a fashion gesture, the handkerchief has remained a common item for personal use to this day, though facial tissue is now more commonly used.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.
Gustafson, Helen. Hanky Panky: An Intimate History of the Handkerchief. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2002.
handkerchief: In classical Greece pieces of fine perfumed cotton, known as mouth or perspiration cloths, were often used by the wealthy. From the 1st cent. BC, Roman men of rank used an oblong cloth of linen (the sudarium) chiefly to wipe perspiration from the face and hands. During the empire a square handkerchief of cotton or silk was carried, especially by women. The handkerchief was dropped by the praetors as a starting signal in the Roman games and was waved by spectators as a sign of approval. In the Middle Ages it was a prized possession and was conspicuously displayed by the wealthy. It was worn by knights in tournament as the symbol of a lady's favor. It came into general use in the Renaissance and was called a napkyn. Silk, cambric, and lawn, lavishly embroidered or laced, became fashionable for both men and women. Shapes were also varied. Today the handkerchief is more practical than decorative. Disposable paper handkerchiefs are used for all but very formal occasions. The handkerchief carried in the left hand of the officiating priest in the early Christian church evolved into a folded band that by the 12th cent. had become the maniple, worn on the left arm.
hand·ker·chief / ˈhangkərchif; -chēf/ • n. a square of cotton or other finely woven material, typically carried one's pocket and intended for blowing or wiping one's nose.