Summer is here and the beach in the little cove where I live is starting to get busy. This weekend I spotted someone or rather something that brought memories flooding back from my own childhood - a man chilling in the sunshine wearing a hanky hat. The fashioning of a white handkerchief into headwear by tying knots at the corners became something of a clichéd image of the British male at play in sunny weather.
A look much lampooned and certainly best forgotten !
Musing on the "hankie" I started to think of its various different uses. Besides the obvious of blowing one's nose it can be used can be used to hold, wrap and protect.
One evening in 1913 New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob was putting on a sheer silk evening gown as she eagerly got ready for a dinner party. She had one small problem, whalebones were visible beneath the sheer silk fabric and were poking out of her corset. With the help of her French maid she created a brassiere from two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. Soon thereafter she started to sell her silk handkerchief brassieres.
Textiles help us in a mutiltide of everyday ways. A piece of cloth has so many different uses. Usually we think of a sari simply as a garment but it does much more than cover the body. The loose end that is draped over the body also serves as a handy piece of fabric that can mop the brow and protect the face from dirt and sun. It can be used as a potholder and the end can be tied to hold money and keys in.
The belted plaid was used not only as a garment, but also as bedding at night, the wearer wrapping himself in it and sleeping directly on the ground.
The Mexican rebozo and the Guatemalan tzute function as shawls or as carriers of everything from babies to firewood.
The uses for a scout's neckerchief are endless.
In the 21st century of the Western world very few of us weave our own cloth and the laborious processes and multiple steps that go into its production are carried out in factories in faraway countries. Textiles play an important role in our lives, they are all around us. We use expressions such as "life hanging by a thread", "moral fibre", "fibre of our being", "cut from the same cloth", "spinning a yarn" and "to cotton on". The historical meanings and significance behind textiles might have faded into the background but there is a rich and interesting story to be told.
The idea for this post came from seeing a man sporting a hanky hat and coincidentally the word "kerchief" came from two French words: couvrir, which means “to cover,” and chef, which means “head.”
By the 16th century the kerchief had become known as the handkerchief.
The Romans waved handkerchiefs in the air at public games, and the drop of a hankie would signal the beginning of the chariot races. The medieval knight would tie a lady’s handkerchief to the back of his helmet as a good luck talisman when jousting.
Handkerchiefs appeared in Shakespearian plays – Cymbeline, As You Like It, and most memorably Othello, in which a misunderstanding over a handkerchief caused Othello to kill his wife and then himself.
Handkerchiefs were listed in dowries and bequeathed in wills. The loss of a handkerchief was found recorded in publications as far back as 1665.
In Persia, they were considered a sign of nobility and were reserved for kings. Aristocrats sitting for their portraits would request that a handkerchief be included in the picture, the more embellished the better, to indicate their status and position.
The nobles of France began sporting handkerchiefs in the 14th century. These handkerchiefs were items of great beauty - made of silk, often heavily embroidered and were found in many shapes, including circles and triangles. Often these handkerchiefs were scented as protection from the smells resulting from a lack of regular baths and working toilets.
Considered a symbol of wealth, handkerchiefs became larger and larger, until, in 1785 Louis XVI issued a decree prohibiting anyone from carrying a handkerchief larger than his.
The handkerchief was used as a way to flirt. It was said that Queen Elizabeth I, who carried handkerchiefs embroidered with gold and silver thread, created a whole vocabulary of hankie gestures for dealing with her staff.
In addition to carrying for practical purposes, handkerchiefs have long been displayed in the top pocket of men's jackets. Used in this way, they are referred to as a pocket handkerchief or pocket square.
As a visible fashion item there are a wide variety of ways to fold a pocket square, ranging from the austere to the flamboyant.
During the depression in the 1930's, a handkerchief was often the only new item a woman could afford enhance her wardrobe. A woman would “change” her outfit by changing her hankie.
Ladies would embroider colorful flowers, monograms or motifs on their hankies.
In WWII, with clothes rationing the hankerchief played an important role in fashion and
could be seen peeking from breast pockets or draped over a belt as anaccessory.
Manufacturers like Burmel and Kimball advertised a handkerchief of the month in Vogue magazine. With the perfection of color-fast dyes, a vast array of cheerful colors allowed artists the freedom to depict everything from flowers to animals to cocktail recipes. There were handkerchiefs to celebrate holidays, birthdays, get well greetings, Mother’s Day, and more, often sold in special gift cards.
Several years after the war, once fashion began to revive, Balmain, Dior, Rochas and other designers utilized handkerchiefs as a final touch to their haute couture. Hankies were tied to the wrist, threaded through the top buttonhole of a suit or popped from the side pocket of a handbag.
Handkerchiefs were very popular with the armed forces to give as gifts to mothers and sweethearts.
The production of souvenir handkerchiefs can be traced to the 17th century, with designs including depictions of victories in battle, royal events, performers, maps and unusual events. These designs could help to satisfy patriotic sentiments or signify particular allegiances. By the second half of the 18th century handkerchiefs were among the most common commemorative items produced.
Handkerchiefs were even employed for advertising in political campaigns. One historian claims Martha Washington created a handkerchief to help promote the election of her husband.
Apparently she had “George Washington for President” hankies printed for distribution at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. To this day, handkerchiefs are printed depicting both Republican and Democratic parties, as well as coronation handkerchiefs for royalty. There is even a handkerchief that contains King Edward’s abdication speech.
The birth of tissues sounded the death knell for handkerchiefs. Originally invented in the 1920’s as a face towel to remove cold cream, by the 1930’s Kleenex was touted as the antidote to germs with their slogan “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket.” Busy housewives eagerly embraced the disposable hankie.
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