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Handkerchiefs, Pocket Squares, and When to Wear Them

There is much confusion over the distinction between a handkerchief and a pocket square, and the matter is a bit subjective. Simply put, a pocket square is worn in the breast pocket, whereas a handkerchief is usually kept in the back pocket or perhaps a purse. Both can be colored, patterned, embroidered, edged, or plain. Many etiquette books recommend carrying both - one for showing and one for blowing, as the case may be. If your handkerchief has been used, it is quite acceptable to use the pocket square next, but it does not go back in the front pocket. Treat it like a hankie until it's washed.

The most formal pocket squares are white linen, with a hand rolled hem and an initial or monogram, hand embroidered, in stately jewel tones. Unless you're dining with the Queen, you can be more informal - perhaps cream or oatmeal linen to go with a tweedy jacket, or one of our bordered hankies to add a splash of color to an otherwise sedate look. Narrow rolled hems, done on our antique Singer sewing machine here in the studio, give a similar look to hand rolled hems at an affordable price. 

Antique sewing machine and handkerchief

 

Surprisingly, silk is considered a step down from linen in terms of formality, and cotton lower still. The scrap of polyester so often rented with a prom tux hardly counts at all! Linen can be used for all occasions; silk should be reserved for social occasions (a little too flamboyant for business) and cotton is for the most informal of occasions only. 

 

Event

Men's traditional

Women's traditional

Linen

Silk

Cotton

White Tie

Coat with tails, detachable collar and white bow tie, white waistcoat

Ballgowns and floor-length dresses, tiaras (but only for married women)

White, with hand rolled hems

Not

advised

Definitely

Not

advised

 

Black Tie

The classic tuxedo - waistcoat or cummerbund, bow tie, pocket square, formal shoes 

Floor-length gown or shorter cocktail dress

Usually white, though colors acceptable at less formal events 

If you're daring

Not

advised

 

Business

Three piece suit, long tie or bow tie for a more social office

Pant- or skirt-suit, blazer

White, neutral tones

Not

advised

Not

advised

Formal/Black Tie Optional

Anything from nice slacks up to a full tuxedo

Cocktail dress, longer gown if preferred

Tasteful colors and designs

Acceptable

Not

advised

Semiformal

Nice slacks and buttoned shirt

Cocktail dress, blouse and skirt

Perfectly fine

Perfectly fine

Acceptable

Casual/Party Attire

Whatever you prefer - from nice jeans and a polo on up!

Whatever suits your fancy  - skirt, dress, jeans, even a jumpsuit!

Perfectly fine

Perfectly fine

Perfectly fine

 

There is more variation in what is considered a handkerchief; anything from a scrap of rag to a bandanna to a linen or cotton square designed for the purpose will do. Pirates often used lace-edged handkerchiefs; though it might seem a bit girly today, it's an elegant and beautiful finish, and we use only handmade bobbin lace to border our hankies. Some vintage bridal handkerchiefs have more lace and trimmings than usable material, but the current trend is to combine beauty with functionality.

Stitching antique lace to a handkerchief

 

Since hankies tend to be used and abused more often then pocket squares, they tend to have more variation in embroidery. Names, inside jokes, favorite flowers and places are all fair game as well as the more traditional initials and monograms. Colors are not limited to sedate navy, grey and black - we've got over 450 shades and can provide a color card upon request.

So, to summarize:

A pocket square is a handkerchief, but your grandmother's lace-edged floral hankie might be a bit too much to wear to a business meeting.

White linen is always a correct choice - though you can nearly always spice it up a bit.

Hand rolled hems are more delicate and formal than narrow rolled hems. 

Bright, fun colors may be out of place at the most formal of events but are great for daily use.

 

 

 


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