A bit of hanky-panky

Last Updated 22 January 2010, 10:27 IST

The handkerchief has been an indispensable fashion accessory over the years, even now, when it seems to be in danger of being pushed out by tissues.  People have used it for wiping the nose, covering the face and many other things like sending a coded message across a crowded room!

 Perhaps, the earliest reference to a handkerchief comes from Catullus (87-57 BC) in his poems. Handkerchiefs were primarily used by the ruling classes as a status symbol. Around 300 AD we find a reference to a “cloth for cleaning one’s nose” — obviously a handkerchief.  It was also customary to wave handkerchiefs as a form of greeting. During the early Renaissance, the handkerchief became an essential accessory as apparent from the words of Erasmus: “To wipe your nose on your sleeve is boorish.”

Although the handkerchief started off as a mere piece of cloth, usually made of linen, it soon grew to be an object of luxury, made with expensive fabrics and adorned with lace and embroidery. It was especially popular with the lords and ladies in the court of Henry II.

Quirky style

The ‘pocket-handkerchief’, however, is just about 400 years old. The idea of creating and carrying one came to an aristocratic Venetian lady who cut a square out of flax and edged it with lace so that she could display it in a promenade in a public garden. The onlookers were excited by her display and it gave rise to a new fashion! The story of the ‘comely cloth’ exhibited by the lady travelled across Italy to France and the rest of Europe. 

Snuff story

The handkerchief came to be used for its initial purpose once again when tobacco made its triumphant appearance in Europe. By the 17th century snuff was widely used both by men and ladies of fashion. The handkerchief became indispensable for cleaning snuff-stained noses! White handkerchiefs were hardly suitable for this and people took to using large, coloured kerchiefs to hide the stains.

In the 18th century the handkerchief became an important accessory in theatre, especially during tragedies. This was particularly true of France although most European countries soon followed the trend.

Till then the handkerchief came in many shapes — square, round, triangular and so on. According to legend, one day Marie Antoinette at Versailles remarked that the square-shaped handkerchief was the most pleasing as well as convenient. This prompted Louis XVI to make it mandatory for all handkerchiefs produced within the kingdom to be  square in shape. This is how the handkerchief, as we know it today, came to be born. 

The handkerchief also symbolised and was considered a token of love. During medieval times ladies gave handkerchiefs to knights whom they favoured for wearing during tournaments or as good-luck tokens. It was supposed to bring about victory in battle.

By the 19th century, handkerchiefs had already become an indispensable accessory for ladies. In fact they became so commonplace and were used so universally that everyone carried one wherever they went.

Signalling a rendezvous

Despite being carefully chaperoned, the young people of the time managed to work out a code with the help of the handkerchief, and could carry on a conversation across a crowded room. For example, if a girl drew the hanky across her lips while looking at a boy it meant that she wanted to make his acquaintance. If the boy was already known to her the code could get even more personal. A handkerchief drawn across the forehead meant, ‘We are being watched’. Finally, if the kerchief was thrown over the girl’s shoulder, it meant, ‘Follow me’.

Dapper style

By the 20th century it was already common for gentlemen to carry handkerchiefs made of silk, linen or cotton in the breast pocket of his suit jacket. In fact, one wouldn’t consider him properly dressed on formal occasions without one. Even a simple white handkerchief in the breast pocket of a dark suit was said to give one a touch of elegance. A white linen handkerchief continues to be popular even today because it suits all occasions.

Today, we have handkerchief manufacturers, retailers, suppliers and exporters galore, in most cities, especially in Mumbai, specialising in gents’ handkerchiefs, ladies’ handkerchiefs, embroidered handkerchiefs, lace handkerchiefs and handkerchiefs made to order by fashion houses.

(Published 22 January 2010, 10:24 IST)

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