PS 101: Pocket Square Basics

Man in a suit and pocket square

Pocket Squares magnify an outfit, accentuating a tie or a bowtie.  As with accents, you’d expect the pocket square to have originated after the necktie or the bow tie. Wrong, fact is often stranger than fiction which has to make sense. The necktie and the bowtie both originated from the Croatian mercenaries who worked for the king of France during the 30 Years War in the 17th century. The pocket square, on the other hand, traces its roots in ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece, well before Christ, where the richest used square white linen cloths as handkerchiefs. The practice was carried over to the middle ages when it was perfumed as a barrier against the odors of society. 

It was King Richard II of England who is credited with forking the handkerchief from its utilitarian use into the modern-day fashion accessory - the pocket square. It soon became a regular feature in the court of King Louis XVI where they were made of silk and embroidered. Paisley, a sought-after Persian ornamental pattern with a curved teardrop-shape found its place on silk pocket squares. In the 19th century, the rise of the two-piece suit installed the pocket square as a fashion accessory. At that time, men also carried a separate handkerchief. And with the advent of the disposable tissue, the precursor of the pocket square has become obsolete.

King of England in 1936, Edward VIII sporting a silk pocket square

With a jacket, a pocket square complementing your tie or bowtie elevates your look and helps you stand out. They elegantly convey that you pay attention to detail. But you will be surprised that it doesn’t have to complement a tie or a bowtie. Alone, a pocket square can be the crown jewel of your attire.

Chris Pine in a pocket square

Pocket Squares are worn on your jacket pocket, though ‘worn’ hardly justifies the action. Usually 12x12 inches, they are installed into your jacket pocket with the top peeing out in folds that range from muted to the flamboyant. For best results, It’s best to install them before wearing the jacket. So if you wear a pocket square, you will actually have to pay attention to details. 

Matching with a Tie or Bow Tie

With a few exceptions like in weddings where the overriding concern is to match the wedding motif, pocket squares need to complement the tie or bowtie colorwise but not be of the same exact material. They can be of an analogous - same shade - or of a complementary color like red is to blue. They allow you to add color and contrast that really levels up your presence. If your attention has been captured by someone wearing a pocket square in an event or gala, and the image stayed with you much longer than you expected, that’s what it is.

Pocket squares need to complement the tie or bowtie colorwise but not be of the same exact material.

Pocket Square Folds

As mentioned, the folds can range from muted, like the Presidential, to the flamboyant, like The Rose, or the Bird of Paradise. In between are the likes of the 3 Stairs or The Wave. They are truly pieces of self-expression and can be matched to your mood or to an event. You can learn folds from tutorials in YouTube. Pretty soon you will have favorites and will have taken your look from respectable to unforgettable. 

Daniel Craig sporting a Presidential pocket square as James Bond in Quantum of Solace

Recommended reading: How To Fold Pocket Squares

The Pocket Round

A tardive variant is the pocket round. Around 12 inches in diameter, it was borne out of the craving for quickly pulling off elegant flowery tops. The edging is markedly thicker to evoke the look of petals, or of a flower on the jacket buttonhole.  

Purple pocket round with gold edge border

How to Tell a Quality Pocket Square

Worn, the quality of a pocket square readily shows by look alone. When the fabric is rich and soft as it should be, this is starkly apparent.

The Fabric

Tie fabric comes in either a pattern or an artwork. The most popular patterns are Solid-Color, Striped, Checkered, Plaid, Paisley, Polka Dot, and Floral.

Solid-Color is the most basic and most formal option for a pocket square and is the choice for highly formal events and galas. It is also the time-honored choice for weddings. They allow the groom and the groomsmen to be in pocket squares that match the wedding motif. 

Paisley, the sought-after Persian ornamental pattern has been in fashion in pocket squares even before the fall of the monarchy in France. The name of the pattern actually came from a town in the west of Scotland that mass-produces the designs. Polka dots on fabric originated in Germany in the mid-19th century during the period when polka music and dancing rose in popularity. Checkered, Striped, Plaid and Floral are names that are descriptive of the pattern. 

Opt for materials that are wrinkle-resistant and from which wrinkles are easily straightened out. Silk, wool, and microfiber ties are wrinkle-resistant, while cotton, linen and their blends are more wrinkle-prone. 

Storage and Maintenance

Pocket Squares are best stored folded on small boxes that have no abrasive or sharp protrusions in them. 

If needed, hand-wash in warm water and press out excess water with a towel - don't wring or twist. They can be steam-ironed with a low temperature on press cloth. For stains, dip a clean napkin in club soda and dab away - don't rub. For tougher stains, apply steam and use a dry spot remover.

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