By Polly Guerin, RWA Fashion Historian
DROPPING A HINT
As a communicator of love’s intrigue the handkerchief of finely crafted linen and lace was given, accepted, worn or even purposefully dropped to catch a lover’s attention. Many a lover could communicate their intention by the mere drop in the right place. However, there is the case of poor Anne Boleyn and her indiscriminate dropping of a handkerchief at the feet of a favorite courtier after a joust, and you know what happened, her demise was foretold. Then there’s negative side of handkerchief lore. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago manipulates a handkerchief to ignite Othello’s jealous rage. On the Orient Express a handkerchief with an embroidered initial, left at the scene of a crime, plays an important part in the investigation of a murder.
Men got into the handkerchief craze with noticeable flourish. The almost universal use of snuff in the eighteenth century offered many opportunities for the display of a fine handkerchief and their demonstrated use was a sign of good breeding. The First World War saw a curious revival of the handkerchief as a decorative accessory for men. As the breast pocket on men’s suits were now made on the outside it became fashionable to show a protruding handkerchief, which was sometimes colored to match the tie. In the nineteenth century the handkerchief spread to all classes.
Children’s hankies were embroidered with the days of the week and during the 1920s and 1930s, several handkerchief books were produced depicting artist, Gladys Peto’s artwork. These charming publications contained six square children’s handkerchiefs made from Irish Linen, and covered subjects such as school time, nursery rhymes and Alice in Wonderland. Women found ingenious ways to use the handkerchief creatively and sewed several handkerchiefs together to make a fancy apron. The handkerchief hem on a skirt takes its cue from the handkerchief as does ordering a handkerchief table, a corner table in a restaurant where lovers can have some privacy.
DEMISE OF THE HANDKERCHIEF
Though people no longer dangle a handkerchief to catch a lover’s eye, women of good taste do carry a handkerchief in their purse or tuck it like a flower in the breast pocket of their suit. However, for most people today the Golden Years of the handkerchief have vanished giving way to the economy and hygiene of disposable soft paper handkerchiefs to use not only for colds but also for drying wet eyes during a soppy movie. But I’m old-fashioned and still carry a handkerchief as my feminine right to having something beautiful in my purse and on occasion to flourish before an admiring public.♥
Polly Guerin honed her skills as a fashion writer at Women’s Wear Daily where her accessories columns dominated the Friday pages. She is a former professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Currently her historical “The Tale of Two Sisters,” will be featured in Vintage magazine’s fall/winter issue. Visit her at http://www.pollytalk.com/.