We live in times when finding romantic love is as easy as swiping right on your mobile screens. But there were simpler times, a few centuries ago, when lovers exchanged messages, flirted, broke up, accepted or rejected proposals – the equivalent to swiping right or left – and so much more with a tiny piece of fabric. This piece of fabric is what we know as the handkerchief.
Besides wiping ones face and hands, a handkerchief is used to cover the head, blow your nose, signal attention, wave goodbye, protect from dust inhalation, use as a make shift bandage or carry small items when a bag is unavailable. In addition to carrying for practical purposes, handkerchiefs have decorated the chest pockets of men’s jackets. Also known as pocket handkerchief or pocket squares, this fashion accessory started in the 1920s, continued until the 1960s and made a comeback in the late 2000s.
The handkerchief has evolved over the years. Probably originating in the Middle East, it was introduced to Europe by Venetian sailors. Its popularity boomed in Europe after Othello gave a handkerchief brought from the East to his lover in Shakespeare’s famous namesake play. They became a fashion trend in France where they were called ‘couvre-chef’ and used as headgear. They were brought to Britain and first called a ‘kerchief’ and when people started to carry them in their hands, they called them ‘handkerchiefs’.
The material of a handkerchief was symbolic of the socioeconomic class of the user. Initials were often embroidered on the corners of handkerchiefs with silk, silver or gold thread, or lace work. Upon a request from Queen Marie Antoinette, King Louis the XVI of France adopted a law to make all handkerchiefs in the shape of a square in 1784.
Handkerchiefs were the secret language of love and lovers. These small, ornate and sweetly-scented wonders were a token of affection and both men and women saw the handkerchief as a representation of love. While men kept them in their hats, women kept them in their cleavage.
In the 1700 and 1800s, women could not flirt openly or explicitly because of social restrictions and cultural norms. Society disproved any type of overt sexual advances. A woman’s best tool for flirting was non-verbal communication. She could rely on subtle signals to communicate her feelings and intentions to a man. Something that all women carried was the handkerchief, and because every woman had one, they soon realised that flirting could easily be achieved with the ubiquitous accessory.
A woman sent a handkerchief that she made herself to her lover, and all the embroidery had a different meaning. These handkerchiefs were not used but kept for remembrance. They were considered customary messengers of cupid and became an inevitable element in love poems. Under the right circumstances, gestures with a handkerchief could also easily be considered a marital contract. It was important to know that it was not appropriate to use handkerchief signaling in all places. The code could be used at balls, parties, theatres or on the street, but never in church.
A handkerchief with a burnt corner indicated passionate love. When a girl threw a handkerchief from her window, it was a declaration of love. If the man stopped and took the handkerchief and carefully folded it and put in his pocket, then it meant that he also loves the girl. Throwing the handkerchief on the ground in parks meant the girl wanted to meet the man she loves.
Flirting with handkerchiefs of the 1800s involved signals like drawing it across the cheek that meant ‘I love you’. Drawing it across the eyes meant ‘I am sorry’, across the forehead ‘Look, we are watched’, across the lips ‘desiring an acquaintance’, and through the hands ‘I hate you’. Dropping it meant ‘We will be friends’, folding it ‘I wish to speak to you’, letting it rest on the left cheek ‘No’, letting it rest on the right cheek ‘Yes’, letting it remain on the eyes ‘You are so cruel’, opposite corners in both hands ‘Do wait for me’, over the shoulder ‘Follow me’, placing it over the right ear ‘How have you changed’, putting it in the pocket ‘No more love at present’, taking it by the centre ‘You are most too willing’, twisting it in the left hand ‘I wish to be rid of you’, twisting it in the right hand ‘I love another’, winding around the forefinger ‘I am engaged’, and winding it around the third finger ‘I am married’.
Colours of the handkerchief also signalled different codes. A white handkerchief meant ‘I love you’, while a lilac coloured one meant ‘Wait for me at your window tomorrow, my love, I will give you a letter’. A light green handkerchief referred to being cautious and a purple one meant ‘I really like you’. A handkerchief with pink corners meant ‘I cannot live without you’ and one with a green corner meant ‘I will always remain loyal to you’. A yellow one meant ‘I was sick for the last few days, I could not go out’, a red one ‘I love you with all my heart’, a blue one ‘You are not grateful, I am in sorrow’, and a green one meant ‘I sent you a letter and am awaiting your answer’.
Today, following the arrival of paper tissues, handkerchiefs have lost their popularity and have perished from our lives. Maybe it’s time to revive this amazing accessory and, who knows, it may bring luck to our love lives. It will surely be better for our planet.
Until next time, Stay stylish!
(Writer is a fashion designer. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @ninoshkaindia or WhatsApp 8698797633)