The Return of the Pocket Square

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don-draperSometimes falling behind the curve is a comforting development. So I readily admit that while I’ve noticed a fashion event for some time — the return of pocket squares — I’m only now getting around to writing about them.

I used them in the 1960s (probably as they were fashionable at that time), and I still have a drawerful. But only recently I have resumed stuffing them in the left-hand-side breast pockets of my suits and blazers.

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We might track the resurgence of pocket squares to Don Draper on Mad Men, and undoubtedly that influential show (remember Banana Republic’s Don Draper furnishings phase?) is at least partially responsible. Others may note such as trendsetters as Justin Timberlake, Sean Combs (or P. Diddy, or whoever he’s decided he is) and Robert Downey, Jr. If pressed, I would speculate that a narrower group of men than those above and a few others (did George Clooney wear one when he got married?) are going the same fashion-plate route.

I’d have thought their biggest appeal would be to the aging prep school and college crowd. I guess I’d be wrong, which can only please the merchants stocking them — well, not only stocking them, promoting them. I don’t know what it’s like in men’s stores and department store men’s departments and malls around the land, but pocket squares are certainly on big-time display in Manhattan.

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Walk up Madison Avenue starting at Brooks Brothers and just about every manikin in a store window wearing a jacket has a pocket square visible. Why do I say “just about every manikin” when it’s literally every manikin I saw on a recent jaunt? Maybe I’m covering myself in case I missed one that was pocket-square-devoid.

Go into the stores, and do the manikins feature pocket squares? Why wouldn’t they? Stores are stocking them and naturally want to show off how they add dashes of elegance and color to otherwise proper but bland outfits. (Related digression: I suspect that in corporations where blue business suits and muted ties are the going uniform, the potentially wrong kind of attention-getting pocket square isn’t much in evidence.)

After seeing Brooks Brothers’ pocket squares only by cash registers as an impulse buy, I checked out Paul Stewart, where I was led to two display cases with four wide shelves of pocket squares. When I asked the pocket-squared salesman if the accessory sells more nowadays, he replied not snootily but matter-of-factly: “We’ve always been famous for them.”

By focusing on Madison Avenue — right up to Suitsupply on East 59th Street — I may be giving the impression that only men who shop on that thoroughfare are pocket-square candidates. Not so. Consult, among other emporia, J. Crew stores and websites, and you’ll see they’re on sale widely. (Another related digression: If you think I’m exaggerating about pocket-square ubiquity, go to the Suitsupply website.)

I might add that pocket squares are not a mere stateside trend. I’m just back from London and Paris, both of which are pocket-square mad — or pochette-square fou. I darted into Le Bon Marché on the Left Bank and found a collection so tempting that I grabbed a linen example with a paisley design for 35 euros, which at the moment is only pennies above $35. In London, I looked for and found quantities of them at Hackett, which has several branches specializing in “British kit.” I also saw great-looking pocket squares at The Vintage Showroom on Earlham Street and in bins at Fat Faced Cat in Camden Passage. What I couldn’t pass up there, at 24 pounds ($36), was a silk pocket square whose russet-and-tan design looks very 1940s.

My favorite new establishment, however, is Jack Sheppard on Charing Cross. I asked Lee, the salesman, if he is Jack Sheppard. He laughed and told me that Jack Shepard was an inveterate and enterprising 18th century bad boy who in 1784, age 22, got himself hanged — but not before gaining a reputation as an escape artist.

Lee explained that the idea behind Jack Sheppard is to glorify the man’s garishly bold adventures. They come up with clothes, therefore, in a garishly bold mode. Lee then produced a pocket square I had to have. Electric blue and black, its design is gleefully pornographic, featuring more than a dozen naked heterosexual couples coupling in the 11″ x 11″ space. What bloke with a sense of humor wouldn’t want one at a mere 35 pounds ($55)? The fun of it is that not enough of the design shows over the top of the breast pocket for anyone to make out what’s going on in there. Only the wearer knows.

Researching the history of the pocket square, I learned that its origins as a utilitarian handkerchief goes back to 500 B.C. Some stories claim that Richard II was the pocket square originator. In the late 1700s, kings and courtiers had them scented so they’d be handy for sniffing when abundant foul odors proliferated. Apparently it was George VI — father of Queen Elizabeth II — who changed them from a practical to a decorative amenity, and not his elder brother, the always natty Edward VIII, who would have seemed more the type.

Here they are again, pocket-squares ready for pocketing. Yet even that has its variations. Surfing YouTube, I found Patrick Novotny and Michael Hill instructing the unschooled on how to arrange one. Depending on the occasion, there’s more than one way to do it, and the ways have names I won’t go into here. Okay, I’ll mention one: The Fleur de Lis.

Who knew? I’ve always just made a somewhat billowing structure of mine and stuck it in so that just enough protrudes for effect. The arrangement comes from a belief that giving the appearance of too much attention to a pocket square takes away from giving the appearance of an off-handed impression. It has always struck me that the difference between the well-dressed man and the dandy is that the latter has afforded excessive care on the outcome. Never a desired thing.