Latterly abandoned for being regarded unhygienic, the handkerchief has fallen from grace in recent decades. Sadly, it has been cast aside in favour of disposable paper tissues; something I find rather wasteful, and in terms of history, something I consider an enormous shame. As I was growing up, my mother would always advise I carry a handkercher on my person... not for blowing my nose, but rather so that I may offer it to a woman in distress if ever needed. I always found a little romance in this suggestion and often wondered if I would ever find myself a protagonist in such a scenario. So, for many years I carried one in my pocket, often to the ridicule of my peers and my own chargrin. As an adolescent, it did enjoy some use though... chiefly as a means to wipe sweat from my brow, or as a tampon for a bloodied nose.
Most likely derived from ancient folk theatre and dance rituals, the handkerchief reached it's heights of popularity in the 16th century when delicate, ornately- decorated squares of silk, cotton, or linen were drawn from the depths of pockets and put on parade, rendering them the essential accessory of the age. Historically, they have been referenced in art and in literature time and again, and have played an important role in perfumery; acting as a textile canvas upon which toilet waters were blotted and sprinkled. These were then more often than not held over one's nose and mouth to veil the stench of the cities before our modern infrastructure had evolved. The scented molecules were easily retained in the absorbent pile, and often lasted longer than when applied directly to skin.
Recently, I received a lovely vintage perfume by post from an elderly gentleman in France... he had wrapped the unboxed pristine flacon carefully in a monogrammed linen handkerchief, which he had scented with a dash of the parfum. Long after the bottle had been opened and admired and the postal packaging tossed away, my house remained redolent with these few drops from a vintage age.
Since then, I have often spritzed linen curtains and opened windows on opposite sides of the house to allow the scent to meander through my home. I have also placed a scented handkerchief in my suitcase when travelling so that my clothes are imbued with perfume when I finally arrive at my destination. The handkerchief - in my eyes at least - is once again proving to be an indispensable item.
So, I call for a renaissance - a return to a bygone consciousness that saw men and women luxuriate in carrying a 'kercheif sprinkled with their fragrance du jour.
If plaid cotton or linen and lace are not your 'bag', you might be pleased to know there are many modern alternatives available, such as these quirky printed silk handkerchiefs with vintage wash pictured below, available from All Saints.
To close, you might be wondering if my mother's advice was sound, and if I ever did get to offer my handkerchief to a weeping woman... well, I'm pleased to say I did. On my wedding day in 1999, mother presented me with a monogrammed handkerchief that she had bought for the occasion; one that was later passed to my new bride to collect her tears of happiness.