Saturday, April 27, 2013

Lady's Accessory: History of Handkerchief

My theater group was working on a play and for one of the scenes we needed a blood-soaked handkerchief. So, I set out to make one out of bit of linen I had lying around.


And it got me thinking, where did handkerchiefs come from?  Modern Woman magazine wrote this about the origins of handkerchief in 1940:
"Historians credit Marie Antoinette with the invention of the pocket handkerchief. She was so broken up at leaving her home in Austria that she cried all the way to France and wiped her eyes with bits of lace torn from her dress and lingerie. Anticipating future tears, she made it a point always to have a piece of lace tucked in a pocket of her dress. This, say the historians, was how handkerchiefs were born." - via Bobby Pin Blog
This is a lovely, sentimental story, but it's probably not true. Marie Antoinette must have spent quite a bit of her time crying, but she was not the first person to use pieces of cloth to wipe away her tears.

Rose Bertin, La Galerie des modes, 1770s 

Some believe that the handkerchief was invented by King Richard II of England (1377-1399). His courtiers noted that he used square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. But it is very likely that handkerchiefs existed as far back as the Roman times. Poet Gaius Valerius Catallus (84BC) mentions something that could be an equivalent of a modern napkin or handkerchief in his writing.
Linens whose loss affects me not for worth
But as mementoes of a comrade mine.
For napkins Sætaban from Ebro-land
Fabúllus sent me a free-giftie given
Also Veránius: these perforce I love
E'en as my Veraniólus and Fabúllus. - The Carmina of Caius Valerius Catullus
Handkerchief were not only practical items but also wonderful keepsakes that people would give each other as presents. Much of Shakespeare's Othello revolves around a misplaced handkerchief.
Iago Nay, but be wise: yet we see nothing done;
She may be honest yet. Tell me but this,
Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief
Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?
Othello I gave her such a one; 'twas my first gift. - Othello by William Shakespeare
Othello and Desdemona, Daniel Maclise, 1859 

Handkerchiefs were usually made of fine linen, cambric or lawn cloth with rich embroidery or lace along the edge. During the Renaissance they were used for hygiene purposes, but they also gained popularity as fashionable accessories for the wealthy. It is possible that the fad began with the court ladies in Italy and slowly made its way to Germany and France.

 A Woman Holding a Handkerchief, Paris Bordone, 1530s(?) 

They eventually reached the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and judging from the portraits of the time were used to signify the prosperity and status of their owners. Elizabeth herself had quite a collection of handkerchiefs which were mostly New Year gifts from her loyal subjects.

Portrait of Lady Diana Cecil, William Larkin,1614

Handkerchiefs were often perfumed to ward off unwanted smells or revive their owners should they faint from fatigue or excessive sensibility. It is very likely that Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice utilized a handkerchief during her bouts of nervousness.

Alison Steadman as Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Fashion plates of the 18th and 19th centuries abound in pictures of fashionable ladies clutching pieces of cloth in their hands. However, when reading sources from this period, it is not always clear whether handkerchief refers to a pocket handkerchief as we now it today or to a kerchiefs that covered a lady's neck and bosom for modest day wear.

Costume Parisien, 1824

Henry Tilney from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey knows a thing or two about ladies' dress. He suggest that muslin could always be turned to good use if it is made over into caps, cloaks or handkerchiefs.
"But then you know, madam, muslin always turns to some account or other; Miss Morland will get enough out of it for a handkerchief, or a cap, or a cloak. Muslin can never be said to be wasted. I have heard my sister say so forty times, when she has been extravagant in buying more than she wanted, or careless in cutting it to pieces." - Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen  
Yet from the context it would seem that he is talking about kerchiefs rather than pocket handkerchiefs.

Evening dress, Ackermanm's Repository, 1818 

Ackermann's Repository of Fashions from 1829 has this to say about a new fashion involving a pocket handkerchief.
An attempt is making to bring into fashion pocket handkerchiefs very richly embroidered, the centre of which, by means of a riband, passed through a row of open work, forms a purse. The idea is novel, but in very bad taste; as yet it has been adopted only by a few merveilleuses. Those used by élégantes of acknowledged taste, are of two sorts ; the most elegant have a very broad hem, close to which is a row of open work of about an inch in breadth, each corner is ornamented with a butterfly most beautifully shaded; or else a bouquet of flowers coloured after nature. The other sort which are pretty, but not so expensive, have a broad hem, and a border of open work, close to which is a coloured Grecian border from an inch to an inch and a half in breadth. - Ackermann's Repository, 1829
It would seem that some Parisian fashionista were trying to style a sort of reticule out of a handkerchief, though the author of this review seems unimpressed.

Some beautiful examples of pocket handkerchiefs:

An imperial fine linen handkerchief, 19th century, Russia via Christie's  
Linen handkerchief, Venetian needlepoint, 1700s via Gathering the Jewels 

Handkerchief, Convent of Notre Dame de Visitation, 1865 via Met Museum

Today handkerchiefs have been replaced by napkins and paper towels; though they are still used in men's formal wear. However, we should endeavour to bring back these elegant and useful pieces of cloth. You can find real beauties from the 1930s and 1950s in vintage and second hand stores.

But if you want something a little more refined, make one yourself. Here is a simple tutorial that shows you how to sew a pocket handkerchief by hand. You can spice them up with some lovely embroidery. Whitework looks especially lovely. Monogrammed handkerchiefs make lovely gifts and if you start now you will have a few dozen ready by Christmas. And this lovely tutorial will show you how to make a scented handkerchief.

More on the topic:
A Brief History of the Handkerchief in Europe during the Late Middle Ages through the Renaissance by Margaret Roe
An Intimate History of the Handkerchief by THL Genevieve de Valois
Vulgar Things by Hannah Carlson, Common-Place 
Handkerchief Heroes
Bobby Pin Blog

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