The fashion item with perhaps the most romantic history is the handkerchief. This symbol of love and femininity has been the basis of many traditions throughout a very long history. Historical evidence reveals handkerchiefs being included in dowries, bequeathed in wills, and reported as “missing” in official police documents. It’s amazing that an item that had such a practical beginning could have acquired such sentimental meaning.
History of The Handkerchief
Handkerchiefs were not mentioned much prior to the 14th century, but the few references we have state that they have been used for more than just wiping noses. They have been worn on the head, veiled faces, covered mouths to protect from stench and disease, and been waved in greeting. In Pathos, Cypress, people make wishes and hang handkerchiefs on the tree at the entrance to Agia Solomoni Church.
During the Middle Ages, a lady who gifted a man the “couverchef” on her head marked him with her favour. A knight would don his lady’s handkerchief for good fortune in battle. The pocket handkerchief is thought to have been invented by King Richard the II of England, who reigned from 1377 to 1399.
In 1536, King Henry VIII and his wife Anne Boleyn were watching a tournament when Anne’s handkerchief fell onto the field during a pass. One of the combatants picked it up, wiped his brow with it, and handed it back to her, infuriating the king, who stalked away.
The handkerchief became a symbol of wealth and social status in European society, especially in the courts of Italy and France. Handkerchiefs were richly and intricately decorated, a must-have fashion accessory. The dainty pocket handkerchief apparently made its debut when a Venetian lady made a square of pure flax and decorated it with a lace edge. She displayed her handmade creation in a gathering in a garden. Her creation attracted a lot of interest and many ladies then copied her. To better display their handkerchiefs, women wore them draped across their arm or held in their hand rather than tucked away in a pocket.
During the 16th century, tobacco made its way into Europe. By the 17th century, ladies were taking snuff but were bothered by the brown stains on their noses. The handkerchief had a new job. Coloured handkerchiefs came into fashion because they could better hide the brown stains than dainty white handkerchiefs.
Until the 18th century, handkerchief shapes were frequently round, oblong, or square. Marie Antoinette claimed that the square handkerchief was most practical and raved over its beauty. Louis XVI then issued a mandate requiring that handkerchiefs be square, setting the precedent that remains to this day.
It was said that during Napoleon’s reign, Josephine would hold a handkerchief to her mouth to show disapproval when speaking to the lower classes. Eventually, the handkerchief’s popularity spread beyond the upper classes to the commoners and to the New World. Colonial women began carrying square, lacy handkerchiefs that were essential to complete an outfit.
By the 20th century, men adopted the handkerchief as a social status symbol. The left breast suit pocket was developed to showcase a man’s handkerchief tucked in and showing just the top edge. A man’s outfit was not complete without this final touch.
Victorian Handkerchief Codes
In the Victorian era, young couples developed a way to covertly communicate without arousing the suspicion of their chaperones. The way in which a woman handled her handkerchief spoke volumes:
• Drawn across the lips… “We should meet.”
• Held to the left cheek… “No.”
• Held to the right cheek… “Yes.”
• Drawn across the forehead… “We are being watched.”
• Thrown over the shoulder… “Follow me.”
• Drawn across the cheek… “I love you.”
• Drawn through the hands… “I hate you.”
• Dropping it… “We should be friends.”
• Folding it… “I wish to speak with you.”
• Winding it around the middle finger… “I am married.”
In his 1877 publication “Secrets of Life Unveiled,” Daniel R. Shafer wrote, “The handkerchief, among lovers, is used in a different manner than its legitimate purpose. The most delicate hints can be given without danger of misunderstanding, and in ‘flirtations’ it becomes a very useful instrument. It is, in fact, superior to the deaf and dumb alphabet, as the notice of bystanders is not attracted.”
Traditionally, the handkerchief has been associated with love, so it’s no surprise that wedding traditions have arisen featuring the handkerchief. The monogrammed bridal handkerchief came from the tradition of young brides stitching their initials onto their handkerchief and their future husband’s surname.
Irish brides would carry a handkerchief up their sleeve to symbolise their faith that babies would be born to the union. If the first baby was a girl, the handkerchief would be transformed into a baby’s bonnet and the stitches later undone for the daughter’s own wedding.
In China, couples exchange new red handkerchiefs that have mandarin ducks as a symbol of monogamy.
In Greece, the newly married couple dances a traditional handkerchief dance in which they each hold an end of a handkerchief before inviting the wedding guests to join them on the dance floor.
Belgian brides carry a handkerchief embroidered with her name. The bride’s parents then frame the handkerchief and display it on the wall.
In the United States, the bridal handkerchief is passed from mother to daughter. A bride who cried on her wedding day is believed to never cry during her marriage. This developed from a farmer’s belief that a bride’s tears were lucky and would help their crops grow.
The handkerchief as a practical object gradually disappeared from use with the invention of disposable tissues in the 1950s under the slogan “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket.” Yet, the handkerchief lives on in tradition and in the hearts of romantics everywhere who still value the comforting utility of a square piece of cotton softened over countless washes, charming faded prints, and the faint scent of a loved one’s perfume clinging to the threads.
Artwork: Godspeed, by Edmund Blair Leighton.