In today's world, anything is permissible for a monogram or set of initials - from cute and bouncy to illegibly floral to stark and severe - but we haven't been so culturally open in the past. Etiquette books are filled with guidelines on how to mark your linens - the colors, the initials chosen, even the placement!
For men, monograms and initials tend to show up in neutrals and jewel tones – black, navy, and grey are perennial favorites, but colors like deep green, burgundy, plum, and royal blue were surprisingly common as well. Many pocket squares were embroidered solely in white, too. It’s not used as often as it used to be, but it is still a classic (and understated) choice. Sometimes a gentleman would get all of his handkerchiefs embroidered in a signature color, but more often than not he had a collection of different scripts and colors to suit his mood and the occasion; both ones that he had picked out personally and those he received as gifts.
Men’s initials weren’t always alone on the handkerchief; often they would be framed by a design or reflect an interest or hobby. Fishing lures, badminton racquets, thoroughbred horses – even club insignia or colors were fair game for the discerning gent. Floral garlands and heraldic ornaments like crowns and ribbon banners show up surprisingly often as well.
Ladies saw even more variation in color and ornament. Dark neutrals like black or navy were considered acceptable, if a bit severe outside of mourning wear. White was common, as were pastel tones – especially blue. Up until the 1940’s blue was considered more of a girl’s color than pink, and many ladies’ handkerchiefs made before then were stitched in soft blues. Floral garlands and ribbons often made an appearance on ladies’ hankies; sometimes they would be twined in the letters themselves or form a frame around them. The flowers were chosen with care; they were not only ornament but often symbols as well. Roses and daisies vie with garden favorites like violets (faithfulness), pansies (thoughts of love), and sweet pea (blissful pleasure). Flowers could also stand in for people; a mother might have a special handkerchief stitched with birth-month flowers for each child, similar to mother’s rings set with birthstones.
Should Alfred Bernard Constable lay out his initials ABC, or ACB? Either way he likes, really. It’s difficult to say how historic examples were stitched, because they often get handed down without the name of the original owner. However, if the center letter is noticeably larger, it is usually reserved for the last initial. If they're all the same size, they appear first-middle-last.
If Alfred doesn’t care much for his middle name, he can leave it out – handy for someone trying to avoid spelling words with their initials, or those who might find a more pleasing design by omitting the letter. Single initial designs are quite common as well, and remain the best choice for more ornate scripts. If he goes with just one letter, traditionally a man uses his last initial. Family honor, you know.
For girls, things are just the same - until you come to one single initial. Beatrice Daley has spent her teen years embroidering linens for her trousseau, but she doesn’t know what her last name will be. Excluding suitors that don’t have the right initial is out of the question, and she's certainly not going to re-embroider everything she's spent her single life preparing. The solution: she uses her first initial! Though she might go from Daley to Constable, she'll still always be Beatrice.
Wedding handkerchiefs with both the bride and groom’s initials are called toi et moi or sweetheart handkerchiefs, and which initial comes first is always a matter of debate. There are no hard and fast rules here, so we opt to use whatever combination makes more sense to say: B <3 A for Beatrice loves Alfred, or maybe A <3 B for one from Alfred to Beatrice. If an outside person is getting one of these lovebirds a handkerchief, there’s a slight preference to putting the bride’s name first.
For guys, either the border is a plain hem, a hem with the same color (like cotton handkerchiefs with woven lines by the edges) or with a single color edge. Lace, tatting, and other heavily decorated edges were beloved by pirates in the 1700s, but haven’t been much used by the gents since. Just a few straight lines of color or texture is about as fancy as most modern edgings get for the guys.
For girls, borders were a chance to really show off. Handkerchiefs were a great way to use bobbin lace, tatting, or even knit or crocheted laces and edgings. Antique examples may have so much lace and embroidery that even using a hankie to dab your eyes becomes impractical – those were strictly for show on formal occasions. However, most examples are a bit more utilitarian with plenty of open linen to set off the embroidery and trim.
For guys and girls, having the design centered in one corner is a common and useful place to put it. It doesn't get in the way when you fold it, it looks pretty when presented, and it's easy to read. Though it's the most common orientation, it's not the only one. Sometimes the motif is flipped around so the corner is at the top:
Parallel to the hem is another fairly common choice. This looks a bit more modern, and is great for longer lines of text where 'cutting off' so much of the corner with a design isn't feasible. The most common places are the bottom right and the top left corner. Other placements, like the center of a side or the center of the handkerchief, are seen but are much less common. The placement of a motif on a handkerchief or pocket square was up to personal preference.
One thing to remember, though; according to the books, the embroidery should never be seen if a pocket square is folded in the front pocket. It's a hidden surprise meant just for you unless you share it. It certainly shouldn't draw too much attention away from the real star - you!