Lyndon Baines Johnson was not known for his fashion sense, but when the White House invited him to meet with President Truman, the Congressman prepared for the occasion like a dandy. “The first thing he did,” an aide remembered, “was to go out and get his hair cut and his nails manicured.” Next Johnson bought a new pair of shoes and several shirts and ties, to see which combination worked best. Finally, and most agonizingly, he prepared his pocket handkerchief. Johnson called in a particularly well-dressed aide for assistance and “spent part of that evening at his desk” “cursing when it didn’t come out right.”
Even otherwise confident men tend to fuss over pocket handkerchiefs, partly because the accessory remains one of the very few purely decorative items that they wear. An expensive watch has the excuse that it keeps time. A colorful pair of socks also makes shoes feel more comfortable. A handkerchief simply adorns its wearer. For this reason, it attracts attention, if not ridicule.
The 2010 sequel to the 1987 hit movie, “Wall Street,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” opens with Gordon Gekko, the disgraced corporate raider, being processed for his release from prison. A stone-faced guard gruffly names each personal item taken from Gekko when he entered prison eight years before. The first item doubles as the first words of the movie, “One silk pocket square.” Gekko’s face is not shown in the scene nor is he named. Instead, the “silk pocket square” announces Gekko’s identity.
Alan Flusser, who famously consulted on the wardrobe for the original “Wall Street” movie, observed that a breast pocket without a pocket square “looks naked.” The five Wall Street analysts the New York Times interviewed about the sequel offered a different opinion:
New York Times interviewer: What about the fashion? Do young financiers really dress that well?
Goldman analyst: No one wears pocket squares.
Credit Suisse analyst: Yeah, he’d be ridiculed.
The style of “Wall Street” draws from cinematic history more than actual Wall Street fashion. Combined with the power suits and the colorful braces that Gekko favors, the silk pocket square casts him as a debonair, white-collar version of Hollywood’s traditional mobster, the “squat gangster in his derby and three-piece suit with boutonniere and pointed pocket handkerchief” (as the writer Robert Coover described him). No matter how often Gekko proclaims he is a changed man, the handkerchief insists on his enduring criminality.
Discussions of pocket handkerchief tend to emphasize its perceived associations, whether appealing or not. Attorney Chris Zampogna, a former president of the Washington DC Bar Association, advises clients to avoid wearing a pocket square in court because they call to mind figures like Gordon Gekko, “You don’t want to wear the pocket square and look like a New York City, Wall Street, over-the-top guy.” Roger Stone argues the opposite, “The pocket square, properly contrived, finishes a man’s look. With good tailoring and well-chosen neckwear, the look connotes power, taste, refinement, manners. The naked pocket connotes the opposite: working class, tasteless, base, crude, ignorant.”
Stone’s comments represent one of the least attractive aspects of discussions of traditional men’s clothing: the tendency to assign dubious class distinctions to particular items in order to disparage those considered déclassé. Note, for instance, how Stone describes “working class” as synonymous with “tasteless, base, crude, ignorant.”
Like several other innovations in modern men’s wear, the pocket square was popularized by the Duke of Windsor. “The haberdashers have learned from long experience that follow the Prince in his fashions is money in the pockets, hence they are selling the new handkerchiefs by the dozen to young bloods,” the New York Times breathlessly reported in 1924. The Duke of Windsor was a dazzling dresser and an otherwise unpleasant human being. His example shows that sartorial style should be admired for what it is, for the skill and flair it demonstrates and the pleasures it gives, and not for what it is not, as a marker of objectionable values.
Of course, there are several kinds of pocket handkerchiefs, distinguished by material and pattern. I find the so-called TV fold—a white linen handkerchief arranged in a straight line across the pocket—a little too severe. I prefer pocket handkerchiefs when they add a splash of color or texture to an otherwise restrained outfit. I am particular to handkerchiefs whose patterns—of maps or bridges, for instance—are indiscernible when they are puffed in a pocket. They present a playful little mystery and suggest, at least to me, that clothes might be best enjoyed for the pure fun they bring into our lives. — DAVID CAPLAN
David Caplan is Charles M. Weis Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Pocket square from R. Hanauer.