As the inimitable style writer Réginald-Jérôme de Mans recently wrote about the current pocket square craze, we may indeed be reaching ‘peak square’ in the same sense that economists speak of ‘peak oil’.
This worldwide style phenomenon is prompting more and more questions from the swelling ranks of #menswear newcomers (‘n00bs’) about how to use a pocket square.
As such, recently I’ve been asked by a reader to write something ‘fundamental’ about pocket squares. Therefore, since we are talking fundamentals, here is a list of what I consider to be the Ten Commandments of the Pocket Square.
I. Thou shalt not spend (too much).
Out of all the pieces in a man’s wardrobe, the pocket square is in my opinion, the one item that is least worth spending a lot of money on for the return that you get.
Between my Ralph Lauren silk squares at 150 euros each, and squares I’ve thrifted for a mere three euros each – or even some free squares from recycled swatches of random fabric…the use, visual impact and pleasure-of-wear of all of these squares are the same in all regards.
I will personally never again spend a lot of cash on a pocket square. Lesson learned. And overall, no matter how much or little money that one spends on a square, no one can tell the difference–not even the wearer.
II. Thou shalt have fun.
‘Misappropriating fabric’ is the element of this game that is the most fun of all.
Grandma’s silk scarf, or even a stripper’s G-string peeking out of a jacket’s breast pocket can look great, and no one will be the wiser. A little creativity will keep an inner smile on your face throughout the day. And if you enjoy your square, chances are that others will as well.
III. Thou shalt think twice before choosing.
Bear in mind that when you don a pocket square, only a minute fraction of the entire square will be showing.
When buying, you should not be influenced by the store display, which offers no indication whatsoever about how the square will actually look and wear.
Relying on the store display to make a purchasing decision for a square is counterintuitive, and very different from the typical decision process for buying clothes, where we rely on our instincts as a guide through the selection process.
I can’t count the number of times when the pocket square I was most drawn to in the store display ended up looking terrible on the jacket, whereas the square I thought would look bad actually looked the best when tucked away with only 1 cm showing. You absolutely must do a test a before buying–it’s the only way to know what works and what doesn’t. Test your selection against all the other jackets you like in the store in order to evaluate fabric and color combinations.
IV. Thou shalt start with a white linen square.
Much like the navy grenadine tie, you will discover that there are only a few squares that you will inevitably end up coming back to, time and time and again.
The white linen pocket square (in a TV fold) may be the only square ever needed by anyone.
Beyond the white linen square, there are few other multi-purpose squares. It’s strange, but looking back upon the squares that I ended up wearing the most, these are the squares that happen to be the outliers, compared to the ones that I thought I would be wearing most.
For example, among a series of four Drake squares colors (navy, medium-blue, deep red and yellow), I end up wearing my yellow square most often, whereas the first three colors are more obvious hues associated with menswear, i.e., colors that men generally select for a tie.
The success of the yellow square illustrates another important discovery as shown in the next Commandment: the pocket square should complement the tie color(s) instead of paralleling, or imitating the tie.
V. Thou shalt complement, not duplicate.
Like so many other style aspects of menswear, the pocket square color and design choice should be dictated by associations of textures, colors and patterns of the entire suit ensemble.
Choose your pocket square to complement the rest of the outfit. Complimenting an outfit with a pocket square can imply choosing complimentary colors (but not necessarily). Most of all, it’s important never to choose a square that is identical to the tie – it looks cheap!
As a side note, it’s nearly impossible to build an outfit each morning by first deciding which square you would like to wear that day. (I’ve experimented with building an outfit from the pocket square-out as a personal challenge and found it nearly impossible to succeed with this method.)
VI. Thou shalt be brave.
If you have to ask yourself ‘can I pull this off?’, then the answer is ‘no you can’t’.
The pocket square adds the most sprezzatura to any outfit, therefore you must be aware that it will strike other people’s attention, but this in turn must not make you become uncomfortably self-aware (lest it ruin your day and leave you feeling like removing the offending square by lunchtime.)
Wearing a pocket square requires a certain degree of self-confidence and nonchalance. You must channel your inner Rubinacci.
VII. Thou shalt know when to abstain.
Sometimes no square is the best pocket square. While I know this rule to be true, I cannot think of a strict rule that applies to this guideline (except perhaps when there is an overabundance of other suit accessories). Go with your gut instinct.
What looks right to you personally is what matters most, as your projection of yourself is what makes an outfit come alive. A poorly used pocket square is worse than no square, as it can push a good outfit over the top and make it bad, even if everything else is perfect. A pocket square disaster can be that one small element that breaks the back of an otherwise good sartorialist.
VIII. Thou shalt showcase yourself before your outfit.
Another unwritten rule of menswear: you want others to remember you, not your outfit.
How you carry yourself, and how confident you are will make your ensemble more memorable than any individual element of your wardrobe.
In other words, while I agree that clothes make the man, let’s not forget that the man himself is the centerpiece, not the outfit. We tend to view a man as being well dressed when he projects something that goes well beyond the clothes on his back.
Inversely, a person wearing a bespoke suit will not look as memorable if he does not hold himself in a certain way that compliments him as a person. Thankfully, the wonderful thing about bespoke suits is they are conducive to demanding that you hold yourself in that certain way — if only as a personal reminder that whispers in your ear: “Damn, I’m wearing a bespoke suit today!”
IX. Thou shalt adapt your fold to your mood.
While for me personally, there’s probably only one tie knot to know (the four-in-hand)…there is no such universal pocket square fold. Your fold choice should be influenced by the the overall look of the rest of your outfit, and more importantly–on your own mood.
Simply put, on days when you feel like peacocking around, you will naturally become more exuberant with your fold. But you will square that square away on days when you feel in the mood for understated elegance. I find that my pocket square mood follows a sort of moon-cycle that fluctuates with the weather — just as the weight and color choices of my suit jackets cycle through the seasons.
X. Thou shalt have square or be square.
Lastly, you need to understand that wearing a pocket square is like a secret handshake, or sign of recognition among sartorialists around the world.
You are joining the brotherhood of men who love clothes and who broadcast that membership like a badge of honor on their chests for all to bear witness.
It’s hard to go back afterwards.