Chic or Passé? The Fabulous History of the Humble Handkerchief

   17554    15
Chic or Passé? The Fabulous History of the Humble Handkerchief
A handkerchief is something we take for granted. Most people don’t use them anymore, either for personal hygiene or as a fashion statement, but at one time they were prized possessions, worth a king’s ransom. The history of the handkerchief is woven through many centuries and countries, most consistently though, through France. The origin of the word handkerchief can be best explained by stepping back to 2,000 BCE. Wealthy Egyptians were carrying the first handkerchiefs made of bleached white linen. The Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna has a beautiful limestone stela of Keti and Senet carrying their handkerchiefs. In 1,000 BCE China we see for the first time a piece of cloth used to shield the head from the sun, a wholly practical invention, as evidenced in statuary discovered from this period. The next historical written reference was made by the Roman poet, Catullus in the first century A.D.  A piece of linen cloth was then called a sudarium, from the verb “to sweat.”  Since linen was an expensive, imported fabric, it was used to only wipe sweat from the faces of wealthy Roman citizens and as a token thrown into the arena at the start of gladiatorial contests. In the third century A.D., Emperor Aurelian changed the linen’s name to orarium, denoting their use as exclusive gifts for high ranking officials. When the Roman Empire fell, so did the use of the cloth. The use of a piece of cloth to cover one’s head resurfaces in The Bible, then doesn’t appear again until the middle of the 13th century, with the appearance of the word couvrechief (courvir—“to cover,” and chef—“head,” in Old French, and keverchef in Middle English. The formal use of the word “handkerchief” evolved in 14th century France. At that time, pieces of cloth were called pleuvoirs from the French verb pleurer— “to cry”, later changed to mouchoir. The English renamed it handkerchief, as in “hand-cover-chief.” The French queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, wife of Charles VI (1385), is noted for purchasing 32 bolts of “Toile de Reims” to be made into handkerchiefs. Charlotte de Savoie, wife of Louis XI (1451), is credited as the first monarch whose handkerchiefs were embroidered with silk and gold threads. These were created in many shapes, including circles and triangles. By the 16th century the use of the handkerchief had spread to Italy, where it was referred to as a fazzoletti. With fabric readily supplied by weavers in France, the fazzoletti soon rose in popularity amongst the Italian elite. During the Renaissance, Venice was not only the center of origin for some of the greatest paintings in art history, but it was also a mecca for needle-made lace, highly favored by Catherine de Medici. Numerous Renaissance paintings evidence noblewomen holding exquisitely tatted, lace-bordered handkerchiefs. In 1533 Catherine de Medici married Henri II and moved to France. She brought many new fashion styles with her, not only the lace-bordered handkerchiefs, but the scented handkerchief as well. Thereafter, French seamstresses combined silk, gold and silver embroidery with Venetian lace. Ironically, Henri II used these delicate objects to clean his teeth! By the end of the 16th century handkerchiefs were so valuable they were bequeathed in wills. Henri IV of France was documented as giving two of his treasured handkerchiefs to his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées in 1594, and then pressing for their return upon her death. Since the French seem to hold the copyright on the notion of love and romance, it’s not surprising the handkerchief became an accessory for flirtations and illicit liaisons.  Soldiers used to keep their ladies’ handkerchiefs under their helmets when they went off to war. This idea of the love token crossed the Channel to England at the turn of the 17th century. Shakespeare contrived a misunderstanding over the loss of a handkerchief as a premise for murder and suicide in 1603 in the creation of The Tragedy of Othello. The English democratized the use of the handkerchief, making it available to every socio-economic class, and by the end of the 17th century almost everyone in western Europe could be found using a handkerchief. During the 18th century the fashionable accessory crossed the Atlantic to the thirteen colonies. Fighting alongside George Washington during the Battle of Rhode Island in the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette was famously greeted by 200 young women waving white handkerchiefs. And legend has it that Marie Antoinette complained to her husband, Louis XVI, that her handkerchiefs were too large to be fashionable, so, in 1785 he decreed that they be made with lengths equal to their widths, in dimensions of either 10×10 or 11.5×11.5 inches, sizes that are still used today. Prior to making their move to the breast pockets of men’s suits and sport coats, handkerchiefs were kept in pants pockets. It was then viewed as a major breech of etiquette to expose a used handkerchief in public. Women of the day kept them in purses, stuffed down their brassieres or rolled up in their sleeves. The handkerchief didn’t turn into the more popular pocket square until two-piece suits…
  • SUBSCRIBE
  • ALREADY SUBSCRIBED?

Lead photo credit : Hermès handkerchief/ Public domain

Previous Article Take Home a Piece of La Tour d’Argent, the Iconic Paris Resto
Next Article A Pop-Up Chalet at La Maison Champs Elysées, Designed by Maison Margiela


Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.

Comments

  • Sue Aran
    2020-10-14 11:59:58
    Sue Aran
    Thank you Rajen. I agree, French culture is deeply rooted around the world, at least the best of it. Kind regards, Sue

    REPLY

  • Rajen
    2020-10-14 02:02:47
    Rajen
    Rich and nicely done. It shows the deep rooted French culture around the world . Thank you sooo much

    REPLY

  • Margaret Davis Carlisle (Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A.)
    2020-09-04 02:40:35
    Margaret Davis Carlisle (Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.A.)
    Dear Ms. Aran: I enjoyed your wonderful article on the history of handkerchiefs. I just finished writing my first short story, just under 3,000 words, (at the age of 75) called "The Handkerchief." I think that you might find it interesting - I did weave King Louis' edict into the story. I could email it to you (if I had the address). It's about their mysterious qualities and how it affected my life. During college, I attended a Universite' in Dijon one entire summer in order to complete my French credits. By September, I didn't want to leave. You are living the life that I could only dream about!

    REPLY

  • Sue Aran
    2020-08-17 07:49:15
    Sue Aran
    My grandmother always called them hankies too, so I'm delighted.

    REPLY

  • Sue Aran
    2020-08-17 07:47:45
    Sue Aran
    You are very welcome! I like looking for them at vide-greniers, flea markets.

    REPLY

  • Sue Aran
    2020-08-17 07:46:15
    Sue Aran
    You're very welcome! I always carry one in my bag, too.

    REPLY

  • Sue Aran
    2020-08-17 07:45:38
    Sue Aran
    Im delighted you use handkerchiefs that are color coordinated!

    REPLY

  • Sue Aran
    2020-08-17 07:44:34
    Sue Aran
    I have not made a book, but it's something to consider...thanks, Sue

    REPLY

  • Susan Aran
    2020-08-17 07:43:30
    Susan Aran
    Thank you very much! I'm glad you enjoyed the article!

    REPLY

  • Cynthia Kulikov
    2020-08-15 01:25:17
    Cynthia Kulikov
    Fabulous article on a fascinating topic - thank you!

    REPLY

  • Graeme Chalmers
    2020-08-14 02:31:11
    Graeme Chalmers
    Hello Sue Have you produced this story into sa book that is available to purchase? Beautiful pictures

    REPLY

  • Gloria Picchetti
    2020-08-14 01:33:09
    Gloria Picchetti
    In the winter I like a dark handkerchief in the pocket of all my coats. Mouchoirs en papier just don't work in snow storm.

    REPLY

  • Patrick Jaika
    2020-08-13 10:54:54
    Patrick Jaika
    Sue, thank you for this informative article. I remember handkerchiefs were a part of our school uniform. We didn’t leave home without on. We used them often to remove dust or eyelashes from a classmates eye, to get a better grip when twisting a bottletop off a bottle, to remove a stain from a shirt and so on. In these days i use it often to clean my glasses or the screen of my phone. 😊

    REPLY

  • gerry
    2019-02-08 18:33:54
    gerry
    Thank you for the well-written and thoughtful article on the handkerchief. I always keep a dozen mixed,mens' and ladies' handkerchieves in my go-bag when l go out,and usually use one of each as the day goes by. I've purchased some nice ones in Paris--at Denise Francel,near Place de la Concorde when it was there,and Kimono on Blvd. Haussmann,and others. Womens' handkerchieves,especially florals are small works of art and they are as much a pleasure to use as a good mens' style. I use large ones for practicality's sake--size matters if you're really going to use them. Belgium is big on the handkerchief and they have marvelous shops and good selections.

    REPLY

  • Jean Coumes
    2016-02-18 21:08:00
    Jean Coumes
    I have always used "hankies" as my grandmother called them. My favorites are the ones I have collected in my travels around the world.

    REPLY