A handkerchief //, also called a hanky or historically handkercher, is a form of a kerchief, typically a hemmed square of thin fabric that can be carried in the pocket or purse, and which is intended for personal hygiene purposes such as wiping one's hands or face, or blowing one's nose. A handkerchief is also sometimes used as a purely decorative accessory in a suit pocket, it is then called a pocket square. It is also an important accessory in many folkdances in many regions like the Balkans and the Middle East; an example of a folkdance using handkerchiefs is Kalamatianos.
The material of a handkerchief can be symbolic of the socioeconomic class of the user, not only because some materials are more expensive, but because some materials are more absorbent and practical for those who use a handkerchief for more than style. Handkerchiefs can be made of cotton, cotton-synthetic blend, synthetic fabric, silk, or linen.
Handkerchiefs were also used, especially by children, as an impromptu way to carry around small items when a bag or basket was unavailable. They could also serve as a substitute for a bandage over a small injury. In the United Kingdom, the habit of wearing a handkerchief with tied corners on one's head at the beach has become a seaside postcard stereotype, referenced by the Gumby characters in Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Signals may also be sent by handkerchief, such as the American LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transsexual) handkerchief codes. In Spanish football or in bullfighting, it is a common sight to see supporters waving white handkerchiefs as an expression of deep emotion. It is used both positively, in admiration of an exceptional performance by a team or player, or as a negative sign of disgust at an especially bad performance.
From the late 18th century white handkerchiefs were waved, generally by women (men usually waved their hats), to demonstrate approval at public events such as processions or political rallies.
Using handkerchiefs to accentuate hand movements while dancing is a feature of both West African and African-American traditional dance, in the latter case especially in wedding celebrations. Handkerchiefs are also traditional accoutrements in certain kinds of English folk dance, such as the Morris dance.
Besides their intended use, they could be used for cleaning equipment, polishing shoes, cleaning hands and face, signalling for attention, as a sweat band, neckerchief, as protection from dust inhalation, to repair footwear, cut out pieces to patch clothes, cut up as emergency firearms cleaning patches, Molotov cocktail wick (fire-bomb), hot cooking utensil holder, a makeshift bandage, tourniquet, or arm sling.
Before people used the word handkerchief, the word kerchief alone was common. This term came from two French words: couvrir, which means “to cover,” and chef, which means “head.”
In the times of ancient Greece and Rome, handkerchiefs were often used the way they are today. But in the Middle Ages, kerchiefs were usually used to cover the head.
Then in the 16th century, people in Europe began to carry kerchiefs in their pockets to wipe their forehead or their nose. To distinguish this kind of kerchief from the one used to cover the head, the word "hand" was added to "kerchief".
King Richard II of England, who reigned from 1377 to 1399, is widely believed to have invented the cloth handkerchief, as surviving documents written by his courtiers describe his use of square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. Certainly they were in existence by Shakespeare's time, and a handkerchief is an important plot device in his play Othello.
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. A traditional pocket square will have the hem rolled, contrary to handkerchiefs.
The trend of pocket squares as a fashion accessory really started during the 1920s, and was considered a trendy accessory up until the 1960s, where actors such as Cary Grant, Fred Astaire or Gary Cooper used to wear them regularly. It fell into disuse up until the 1990s, where pocket square made a come-back, thanks to popular television shows such as Mad Men.
Pocket squares are usually made in fabrics such as silk, cotton, linen or wool.
As a visible fashion item there are a wide variety of ways to fold a pocket square, ranging from the austere to the flamboyant:
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