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The lost art of style: the handkerchief
The lost art of style: the handkerchief

by Lena Weber

When Kleenex introduced their brand of disposable facial tissue in the 1920s – originally intended as a means to remove cold cream - little did they know it would bring about the death of a cultural artifact – the humble handkerchief.

Evidence of handkerchief use goes as far back as one century Before Christ, when linen handkerchiefs were used by members of the ruling classes as a true luxury.

By the time of the early Renaissance, handkerchiefs were considered an essential accessory, prompting Erasmus to note that ”To wipe your nose on your sleeve is boorish.”

Soon, handkerchiefs became more ornate, embroidered, edged in lace, at which point they also began to serve as tokens of a man’s love for a woman, and vice versa.

Up unil the 18th century, the handkerchief came in many shapes from square to round or triangular. It is said that one day at Versailles, the French queen Marie-Antoinette made the observation that the squared form would be more aesthetically pleasing and convenient, prompting Louis XVI to publish a decree ordering that the length of handkerchiefs produced in France would have to be equal to their width.

It was during the 19th century that ladies regarded the handkerchief as an indispensable accessory for an elegant costume, so it was no longer carried in bags but held in your hand.

Handkerchiefs were even used by young ladies to send out secret signals to the gentlemen they fancied.  Drawing your hankie across your lips for example, while looking at a young man, meant you were ready to make his acquaintance.

By the turn of the last century, handkerchiefs were an essential accessory for the well-dressed gentleman who would wear one in his suit jacket – yes, that’s why men’s jackets have a breast pocket – a trend which continued until the 1960s, when it went out of fashion in favour of more relaxed business apparel.

Handkerchiefs are still a sign of the well-dressed lady or gentleman. Do carry one in your purse or breast pocket to sneeze into, wipe off dirt or as a prop to flirt with the opposite sex, dropping your hanky might get the attention of that dandy chap opposite you on the tube – a crumbled old tissue won’t.

Lena Weber is the Editor of Queens of Vintage and the Vintage Guide to London

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Comments

Great post. “Handkerchiefs are still a sign of the well-dressed lady or gentleman” - that’s very true indeed! However I think many people find it really old fashion and therefore no longer use it. Shame in my opinion.

  • Lefinity Lifestyle Management
  • 12 Jul, 2012
  • 4:57 pm
 

My grandmother had tons of them…which I inherited. It seems that the ladies back in her day sent them to one another as gifts for just about every occasion. Could someone tell me how that started and the history behind that? I would like something to go with my now extensive hankie collection. :) Thanks.

  • Nunya
  • 13 Sep, 2012
  • 5:08 pm
 

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