One of the true fashion innovations of the sixteenth century was the introduction of the handkerchief as a fashion accessory. Handkerchiefs themselves were not new; people had been carrying a small cloth for blowing their nose for years. These soiled items, however, were kept tucked away out of sight, causing uncertainty as to when the first handkerchief was actually invented. In the sixteenth century, however, the handkerchief came out of the pocket and into public scrutiny. The same women who dressed in exquisite silk gowns with delicate lace ruffs, or collars, and cuffs had their tailors add lace or a scalloped edge to a fine linen cloth and elevated the handkerchief to the status of fashion accessory. A fine lacy handkerchief, or hanky, was not tucked away in a pocket but held in the hand or draped coyly across the arm. It might be matched with a fan or another accessory.
Handkerchiefs have remained a fashion accessory ever since. It is rumored in fashion history that Frenchwoman Marie Antoinette (1755–1793) was frustrated that handkerchiefs were offered in so many shapes: round, oval, rectangular, and so on. Her husband, King Louis XVI of France (1754–1793), made it a law that all handkerchiefs must be square, and they have remained square ever since. During the twentieth century it became fashionable for men to place a handkerchief in the left breast pocket of their suit coat with just an inch of the fabric sticking out of the pocket. Carefully folded and ironed, these breast-pocket handkerchiefs could come in a variety of colors, though white was preferred. Though people no longer dangle a handkerchief from their hand as a fashion gesture, the handkerchief has remained a common item for personal use to this day, though facial tissue is now more commonly used.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.
Gustafson, Helen. Hanky Panky: An Intimate History of the Handkerchief. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2002.