English Pocket Squares
I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathise.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief Before his streaming eyes.
Although today we separate the one for blowing from the one for showing, there was a time when pocket handkerchiefs were stuffed in the welt pocket of a tailored jacket’s chest pocket. At first, plain white linen was used but soon there began a vogue for colorfully embroidered linen squares; often gifted from a lady. At this point, the breast pocket handkerchief became equally decorative and functional, which popularized the pocket square as a part of the Englishman’s wardrobe.
Let’s call him Trevor. He was a mature club habitué and very, very English. He liked clothes too and noticed that I dressed better than most of the Americans around me. One day while we were both smoking a cigar and having a scotch he leaned over in his leather armchair and motioned up and down and back and forth from my tie to my pocket square making a sign of absolution with his montecristo #2 and said, “I noticed that unlike most Yanks you often do not match your pocket square to your tie or anything else in your outfit. Good show.” That comment stuck with me.
It isn’t that the English won’t match the pocket square to a color in their outfit; it’s that they aren’t as neurotic about it as we are. It seems like American men in the last 10 or 15 years have developed this matching the pocket square color and pattern to the shirt tie and even suit pattern and colors, but as the rental car commercial says, “Not exactly.” Unfortunately, this near miss in pattern and color becomes a whole new level of patently obvious dressing.
The English consider this very studied. To them, a pocket square should quite literally look like it happened to get into the suit’s chest pocket accidentally or was left over from ten outfits ago. Similarly to the bowtie, if you are an Englishman who makes use of the pocket square, anything goes in terms of pattern and color without any regard for the rest of your outfit: the more carelessly plopped into your pocket, the more points you score from your peers.
Some of the pressure to match colors and patterns, at least somewhat, comes from external sources. I frequently hear people comment that my pocket square bears no relationship to my tie or shirt. I do not know if it really bothers American eyes or if people consider me generally well put together and this strikes a chord with them or gives them an opportunity to point out that I didn’t quite get it right. Nevertheless, I want to give them the benefit of the doubt because when I do nicely match my pocket square to my shirt and tie, I often hear a comment at some point during the day that they like (or more curiously “approve of”) the combination.
To a certain extent I think all American men are bound by the judgment of their mothers before they even leave the house, and for the rest of their lives they imagine that they are being inspected by both men and women to see if they pass muster. Therefore, I conclude, it is an American tradition that if you sport a pocket square, it needs to address either the shirt or tie or both. Otherwise American viewers, even if they don’t know what a pocket square is, can be irked, and this is sometimes a good thing.
In principle, the English like to believe they match the pocket square to some secondary color in the shirt or as a backup to something above the waist. But in practice this ideal breaks down under field conditions. Part of the reason is that colors unacceptable in shirts or ties are eminently acceptable in pocket squares.
How would you match an orange pocket square to anything else in the outfit when orange for shirts and ties (not to mention stripes on suits) is generally avoided? All sorts of colors go for pocket squares; all shades of purple, pink, yellow (from crocus to saffron and ochre), reds, oranges, greens (although brighter greens have that shamrock association most English would probably avoid), browns, blues (although a navy background will command a bright contrasting color) and greys.
Two linen pocket squares in the pale, plain colors the English prefer with city suits. The silk squares have that bright, festive air the English are attracted to in pocket squares but still clearly masculine in colors and textures.
Avoid pocket squares that match the ground color of the shirt lest someone think you’ve cut a hole in the breast of your jacket to let the shirt show through. The one exception is a white pocket square picking up the white background of a shirt. The English prefer white pocket squares in silk rather than linen. Silk is preferred over linen or cotton but the English will wear any of the three fabrics.
There is the studied art of having gotten it wrong to convey a sense of degage, that one is above such matters of matching a pocket square to a shirt or tie color (this in spite of the fact that you actually have a silk square in your pocket at all which is considered by many to be its own artifice). That is why a navy pinstripe suit with a blue and white checked shirt, a blue and pink striped tie and a bright red pocket square with yellow spots (spots mind you, not dots; I am changing due to continued exposure with the British) is very English, and if plopped carelessly enough in the jacket, one could be a high ranking cabinet member. The idea is that the pocket square just happened to be in there from ten outfits ago.
Of course, as in America most suit wearers forego the pocket square altogether. Others place anything from pens and eyeglasses to “shudder-ables” in there.
Sometimes a dark red or wine background color tie gets a bright red pocket square but don’t match the reds too closely much less exactly or you will be considered … from somewhere else.
What to use with a pink and blue shirt with a navy tie? Try a bottle green or a purple pocket square. Pocket square colors tend to be bright for the city and darker for the country jacket. It is acceptable to wear a color that matches something in the outfit every now and then but not as a rule. The idea that you spent any time trying to make your pocket square pick up anything in your outfit smacks of trying too hard which is not the triumph of sartorial sophistication it often is in the States but rather a sartorial disaster and one that strips the serious façade from a man.
New and Lingwood:
Mostly silk, mostly with either a spotted or paisley design. The only rule with pocket squares is not to buy matching tie and hanky sets. It should pick up some element of your outfit. One wants to look like you haven’t considered placing your pocket square in depth but in fact it was carefully arranged. You could always just leave it in and the next time you wear the suit the potential discordance is recognized English style all its own.
They should usually match your tie and/or shirt or have color combinations which associate with you tie and/or shirt. They are usually silk although the white linen square is not unknown.
These Turnbull and Asser are typical of the colors and patterns the English like for silk pocket squares.
Pocket squares-wow-there seems to be a real and growing interest in them-another English journalist is writing about this wonderful little piece of silk or cotton or linen dandyism. I love a pocket square. It also serves a function-maidens in distress wiping mascara and eye makeup on a pocket square is one of the most frightening experiences, pangs of sorrow at a $60-100 piece of beautifully woven or printed silk, hand rolled edged squares being crushed/mutilated/ruined-who cares about the girlfriend’s feelings-what about mine-but then as a gentleman one’s pocket square is there to serve a function as well as a decorative emblem, a small piece of one’s own dandyism.
A gentleman would never show his emotions about such a bit of frippery (although deep down he is cursing having handed it over). So sorry but it is an experience I once had-one of my favorite Hermes silk pocket squares and a girlfriend who had just broken up with her boyfriend. I gallantly handed over a £100 Hermes square and it was never the same again-in fact I never saw it again. I still see the girlfriend and I always think that a small piece of beautiful silk saved a broken heart-ahhhh. Now that’s being a gentle man and a friend.
Really, back to business. At Turnbull & Asser we always advise that the pocket square should match the shirt/tie in terms of colour ways. This is not implying that the square should be exactly the same design but as long as the colours naturally and harmoniously work/blend together. We use a number of different styles of folding. The bishops mitre, square or (as I call it) the rose which looks like an exploding flower in ones pocket.
Cotton squares are fine as is linen (mainly for evening wear or else use white silk). They are also good for…well blowing ones nose and damsels in distress-saves on the silk.
Turnbull gets a large selection of pocket squares made up mostly in paisley, geometrics and solids with or without a contrasting border. The last sort is very popular with the English.
Harvie and Hudson:
English men ask for both linen and silk. Cotton is not popular and silk is many times more popular than linen but linen is worn. The English like variety even while staying the same. It’s not easy being English, and it’s harder trying to pin them down as they tend to be a moving target. The key thing is colors, the English follow a certain color palette whether in silk or linen and they never tire of it. At the moment, solid colors with contrasting borders mostly in silk but also linen are very popular.
These pocket squares by Cravats are typical of English favorites. Pinks and/or reds and navy. Spots are especially popular. It is telling that the multi-colored panel square is basically shades of pink and red. The point of a pocket square is to be pale or bright as befitting an accessory expected to help assail the unrelieved darkness of the city suit.
A suit without a pocket square is like a salad without the dressing – there’s something missing!
Although it is possible to find pocket squares made from jacquard silk, it is generally considered too heavy – so the majority of pocket squares are of printed silk, which is typically lighter and softer, and therefore lends itself to the task more efficaciously.
Basic pocket squares are hemmed by machine, but all good quality ones should undoubtedly be hand rolled – a highly skilled operation that gives the edges a lovely rolled appearance with neat hand stitching.
The simplest pocket squares are of plain silk, usually a lightweight fine twill, or for something a little different, linen.
Next up on the design front are plain pocket squares with a contrast colour border – often called a shoestring as it is typically just a few millimeters wide (OK, a sixteenth of an inch to you guys). Classier stores such as Brooks Brothers and Polo will stock shoestring edge pocket squares with their name or logo discreetly printed in one corner in the same shade as the shoestring.
At the top of the tree are printed pocket squares – these are often miniature works of art. For example the ground of the square might be an ornate paisley design, with an ‘engineered’ border say two inches wide in a contrast design – and even a shoestring edge and a printed logo as well. These beautiful products are in effect smaller versions of women’s head-squares, but generally executed in darker colours. An outstanding purveyor of fabulous printed pocket squares is Robert Talbott of California.
And how to wear pocket squares? Well the variations are numerous, and very personal. At it simplest, the pocket square is folded neatly so that just an ‘edge’ of silk shows above the suit pocket. Beyond that, there are countless different ways of folding/bunching the square – divided broadly into corners showing and corners/edges inside. No doubt a psychiatrist would have a field day in analyzing the gamut between the strictly neat, folded square and the foppish exuberant all hanging out approach – but I’ll not go there!
Solid white is popular as is a cream solid. White background pocket squares are also quite English, usually with some blue in them. The navy one in the center with the white and orange design is one of those inexplicably popular combinations and, owing to its brightness; this one could be worn with a navy suit.
The English love paisley or spotted silk pocket squares. They like the pocket square to pick up a secondary color in the shirt and they stuff it in their breast pocket in a signature manner which also needs to look like they couldn’t care less.
Doug Hawkes, Wardrober for English Films:
The question of pocket squares is very interesting, as they seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth, or at least, the streets of London. I’ve been a keen observer of the pochette through all the periods of fashion, and even now muse over the straight edged folding, peering no more than a quarter inch above the welt of the breast pocket. Neat, but a modest statement indeed!
I have to say that I favour a slightly bolder statement, picking up the silk by the centre, and dunking it into the pocket without too much fuss. A little eccentric maybe.
My observations when researching for, and dressing city types in such productions as Geoffrey Archer’s “First Among Equals”, which covered the late 50’s to the 90’s, was throughout that period, a trend toward wearing the silk or white cotton with three peaks showing, infiltrated through the ranks of political and banking circles. With the exception of the odd flamboyant or two, adding colour to what really was a conservative period, in more words than one. A polka dot was, however, as far as one would go to draw the eye, and could easily receive a “tut tut” if entered into the wrong setting.
The English like paisleys, both the more complicated variety and these which are set in a foulard style. Note that when the English like something it gets done in all the various color combos which make them happy. Note that their navy ground color contrasts with the London City navy suit fabric beneath. The English like contrast. These could also be plopped into the breast pocket of a charcoal or black suit.
I like to wear a solid white linen hank because it looks good with everything , if not a white linen hank with a contrast shoestring in either sky or royal blue. If I wear a print hank I would never wear a matching design/colour, I tend to wear a lot of blue ties which I often team with a brown hank with ivory dots and if I was wearing a brown tie I would probably do the opposite.
The other point is that more and more hanks are being worn in the evening without ties, a sharp jacket with a pocket square in the top pocket, good shirt , is a very cool look
Although it flies in the face of general convention, the English adore Hermes (as well as Ferragamo) ties and while the ties have limited popularity because most are the printed sort, “Les pochettes” are sought after for their rich, pure color ways.
Givan’s Irish Linen:
They make beautiful handmade linen pocket squares with hand rolled and sewn borders. The English prefer silk over colored linen pocket squares but when they do wear linen, they usually opt for pure white. It should be well beaten up and mellowed a cream color with age and handling. An Englishman alternates between using it to wipe his brow and blow his nose to give it that relaxed look. One also needs to plop the linen square carelessly into the breast pocket, to look studied is to court disaster.
White linen is very popular with the English. The Irish make the best and Givan’s are the most elegant. Givan’s linen squares have body and substance to their composition. They sell individually or by the dozen and make a good transfer from chest to side pocket when they are past their prime.
You gotta Know when to puff ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…
Clearly, the art of “plopping” is very important in England. To the English, the too artistically puffed or folded pocket square is a failure. A person’s eyes should not be drawn or distracted to how well puffed or arranged your pocket square is.
One way I have taken to experimenting with being English is to choose a pocket square by blindly selecting one from a drawer stacked with them (All in City appropriate colors and patterns because making sure your control group to select from are all acceptably English is more than half the battle). Whatever I pick out, I use whether or not there is even the slightest relationship to the rest of the outfit. I also arrange the pocket square and then just stuff it into the breast pocket of the jacket quickly without arranging it. However the pocket square goes in the first time, that’s how it remains all day.
This is a necessary excercise for me because I am too used to matching an element in my tie or blending all the colors of my shirt, tie and suit via my pocket square. When it comes to the pocket square, the English do not necessarily care whether you match or contrast colors nor do they care whether there is even the slightest relationship between the colors or tones chosen, as long as it all looks like you have not put any thought into any of it, lest it lose the very aplomb it is supposed to inspire. But I think the excercise good for anyone else aspiring to the English look because any good theorem needs to be constantly repeated.
Therefore, concentrate more on wearing a pocket square in a randomly selected color/tone/pattern and be a little bit more cavalier about how you place it in your jacket’s bosom pocket. You may very well discover that your white rabbit approves and that you have taken yet another step towards becoming idiosyncratically English and establishing your own style both at once.
Follow, for he beckons…
Technically, the English shouldn’t like this. It is dark, it has animals on it and “gold” but for some reason it is set so well they like it a great deal. Perhaps the message matches the colors well enough to remind them of childhood dreams?