The Handkerchief

20 June 2013


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy famously suggested the one essential travelling companion was the towel. You could sleep on it or under it, wrap it around you for warmth, use it to distract or battle assorted ravenous spacebeasts and, of course, “dry yourself off with it, if it still seems to be clean enough.”

Yes, yes, we say, but think of how huge they are, how long they take to dry, and how grim they are to have to pack away wet. May we suggest a rather more modest travelling companion: the handkerchief. Not quite as much use if you’ve just been for an impromptu dip, it’s true, but in most other ways just as practical – and far easier to carry.

The humble handkerchief – that hemmed square of cotton or silk carried in a bag or breast pocket, or tucked up a wooly sleeve ready for winter sniffles – is virtually as versatile as the chunky, usually ill patterned towel, and much more stylish too.

Old school kings of the road (and 1950s children) would tie them into a tiny bag to carry around their life’s possessions – perhaps a mess of clinking marbles or a change of clothing, Dick Whittington style, on the end of a long pole. Less stylishly, a handkerchief with tied corners made a nifty last minute sunhat in the seaside postcard world of Donald McGill, so lovingly mocked by Monty Python.

They’ve played a small but reoccurring role in popular culture too, often a highly sexually charged one – as a plot point in Othello, or as a romantic favour (a young man would conspicuously wear a sweetheart’s elaborately embroidered hanky in public, as a way to indicate he was off the market). Few everyday items are so intimate – they’re used to absorb tears and worse – making the act of sharing just one step short of a tonguetwisting smooch.


Though we can largely thank Don Draper and Roger Sterling for the past decade’s rehabilitation of the neat and tidy pocket square, the handkerchief has had other, parallel histories too. Slightly larger versions, called ‘kerchiefs’ amongst other things, are popular female headcoverings in multiple cultures. Bandanas, meanwhile, as just as commonly worn by guys, most often around the neck. What might be perfect, you’d think, is a handkerchief that straddles all usages – the ultimate versatile sartorial tool.

Suddenly American GQ is suggesting we bin the silk and chuck in a bright, cheap bandana instead – though watch for “extraneous bulk” – while more out there sources come up with every which way to wear them. It’s a bracelet! It’s an anklet! It’s a neckerchief! It’s a headband! It’s an arse square, chucked nonchalantly into the back pockets of jeans, possibly serving as an inadvertent signal in specialist establishments. In the meantime, we plot further uses. Waved in the air, to attract a passing seaplane! Flapped, to express some brutal emotion at a bullfight! Strung from a stick, to indicate giving up when idiots are attacking us!

Handkerchiefs are useful to tie a knot in, as reminder that you’re meant to remember something (or, ambitiously, to ward off demonic attack), or to hold hair back from the face, as we finish off a spot of arc welding before rushing off to our night job at the strip club. Or to flirt with, recreating the way this waved square of intimate cloth became the 16th century equivalent of a pap grabbed upskirt shot. (Frisky ladies soon learned the sure way to attract a beau’s attentions – drop yours ‘accidentally‘, and wait for a passing gallant to pick it up.)

Forget the towel, then. On future travels, we’re taking credit card, passport and handkerchief only. Surely everything else – and we suspect we’ll need precious little – can be picked up along the way.

Handkerchief: Chief | Words: Matt Bielby | Photos: Rich Stapleton | Styling: Gaby Paxton

One thought on “The Handkerchief

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