Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Scented Handkerchief: A call for a Renaissance


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.

14 comments:

Ines said...

I love what you do with handkerchiefs and I'm ready to employ them myself in the same manner - when it comes to perfume. :)
I haven't even held one since my childhood.

Dimitri said...

Im so pleased Ines... we can start the resurrection one handkerchief at a time! ;)

Angela Cox said...

Your mother sounds very wise. I have a large collection of silk handkerchiefs . They do get blown in if I can't find tissue when I am out but I try to avoid it. I spray them with fragrance , mop my menopausal brow often. I do have one or two of my mother's embroidered ones. I think Liberty's Tana Lawn ones are rather nice . I'd like to see them in suit pockets again.

Bloody Frida said...

I'm a big fan of hankerchiefs and use them all the time! Viva the 'chief!

Martina Rosenberg said...

Throughout the years I always kept a pile of vintage and antique handkerchiefs, white, with or without lace - which I carry at least ONE in my handbag, together with the average paper tissue for mishaps. I like to have a real fabric hanky handy for whatever sneeze attack or the urge to blot my forehead or ...?!? My Grandmother (oc course ?) always spritzed hers with Mouson Lavendel - and since I really found a sealed huuge bottle of this old-fashioned true Lavender Eau, I spritz mine in the same way. I just love this connection to her, who is long passed away. I love your idea to add some perfume to the house's fabrics,curtains etc. to waft throughout all rooms... will borrow this , when Summer comes !

Olfacta said...

I keep a cotton handkerchief in a vintage cigarette case in my handbag. The case Soviet-made, an aluminum relic of the cold war -- celebrating Sputnik -- which I bought on fleabay very reasonably. It keeps the kerchief from getting dirty, and holds in the scent. When I open it -- I use EL "Tuberose Gardenia" to scent it with -- it rolls out delightfully!

Handkerchiefs are one of those things I find useful in keeping the crass modern world at a distance.

queen_cupcake said...

I always have one or maybe even two cotton or linen hankies in my purse. When I travel, I take an extra one or two in different colors to coordinate with my wardrobe. Sounds fussy, but it isn't. I have dry-eye, and my eyes tear up in the morning, especially in dry winter air. Having a hankie at hand is so much more pleasant than paper tissues. I also have a collection of very old handkerchiefs which I like to look over now and then to imagine who carried them and on what occasions--everything from hand embroidered to vivid prints and appliques. They are miniature works of folk art! I like what Olfacta said about keeping the crass modern world at a distance.

Dimitri said...

I agree with your comment too Olfacta!

Michael M. said...

A beautiful, fragrant post on a noble concept. Well-written.
All the best!
Michael

Mimi Gardenia said...

A lovely post, Dimitri and it's got me thinking ! I think I need afew good hankies- some in silk and some in good cotton that i can put a few drops of Caron or Guerlain on and place in my bag. I love that concept. Otherwise I have not used a hanky in years. Your Mom sounds so lovely :)

Anonymous said...

I'm going to buy some nice handkerchiefs next time I get a chance and douse them in perfume . Thank you for this post. Eliza

Dimitri said...

Thats great news Eliza... Id be very pleased if some of our handkerchief renaissance participants report their insights here. How was your experience carrying a scented hankie?

shoegal68 said...

What a lovely post. I, too spray my curtains and open the windows for the breeze to carry the scent. My husband has always carried larger cotton handkerchiefs to mop his brow but it never occurred to me to spray them with perfume, well won't he be in for a surprise soon. :)

Miss Shannon said...

I've only just discovered your blog, and this post makes me homesick for a time in which I never lived. A time when ladies carried lovely lace-adorned hankies, but would gladly accept one gallantly offered by a gentleman. I hem-stitch and embroider handkerchiefs, then tat lace edgings for them. I always have been afraid to scent them, for fear the perfume would cause stains. Now, however, I am fearless! Thank you for such a beautiful post.