Can you square a pocket?

December 24, 2023

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In 1978 Douglas Sutherland published a little humorous breviary entitled The English Gentleman. The 140 page parody of the style manual details in a series of anecdotal chapters all those prejudices and truths — for those who know Englishmen first hand— about the men’s wardrobe and habits on which the sun never set”. Among the many sartorial questions Sutherland satires is the pocket square, that handkerchief tucked into the breast pocket of a sack coat (Sakko), blazer, or more formal jackets and coats. In the age before Kleenex and Tempo, he jokes that only a non-gentleman would „have one for blow and one for show”.

Certainly there are more than stylistic reasons to distinguish between the cotton or linen handkerchief in the pants pocket intended for wiping away disturbances and the often silken kerchiefs that also substitute for the boutonnière in the lapel. It was about 1910, the end of the Edwardian era, that the habit of tucking silken handkerchiefs into the breast pocket of the gentleman’s coat appeared. That brief regal era generated a number of sartorial idiosyncrasies that have recurred like comets in the universe of style. The discipline with which the squares of monochrome silk has varied. The North Americans favored correctly folded pieces that rose from the pocket edge as a contrasting border. Not surprisingly those attracted to more Mediterranean tastes were apt to stuff the cloth into the pocket haphazardly, leaving large portions of the kerchief waving over the coat front.

Like the open last button on the cuff which signals that the coat was not from the peg, the pocket square is a kind of demonstration that the breast pocket is not a facade. However when snobbery is abandoned and the stylistic utility of a wardrobe item is carefully weighed. The pocket square is an equivalent to the flower but does not wilt. The carnation in the lapel or a more discrete blossom is not only a display of charm but a homage to Nature, the source of all beauty. A pocket square is a practical concession to the floral spirit. It also adds light to some of clothing’s more mundane duties. The pocket may be square, but the color and texture of that bit of cloth it holds can almost make a circle out of it.

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