The curious story of handkerchiefs

Sociologists and historians of manners in the West have gone to town over the small square of fabric. It has been seen as a part of the ‘civilising process’, writes B. N. Goswamy

A woman of rank holding a handkerchief in one hand. Mughal painting, 17th century. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
A woman of rank holding a handkerchief in one hand. Mughal painting, 17th century. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

One pays remarkably little attention to it, for what, after all, is a handkerchief? A small square of fabric, usually carried in the pocket or handbag, for personal purposes such as wiping one’s hands or brow, or, at best, used as a decorative accessory. And yet this little object has, like almost everything else, a history of its own.

As one discovers, it is certainly more than a ‘kerchief’ – the word comes from old French ceuvrechef, meaning a ‘covering for the head’ – or a rumal – which is derived from Persian ru+ mal, meaning something with which to wipe the face. Sociologists and historians of manners in the West have in fact gone to town over it. It has been seen as a part of the ‘civilizing process’, a mark of distinction that ‘serves to regulate behaviour as it separates the elite from the common’.

The rise of this trifling object of use is spoken of as being not simply a function of shifting social mores: it is something through which the haves became over time readily distinguishable from the have-nots. And so on. Is it, serious questions have been asked, only a useful ‘appliance’ or a physical ‘appendage’? A ‘necessity’ or a ‘vulgar aid’?

Then there are matters of material or technique, for one can go on to speak of handkerchiefs of finely spun linen or silk, those embellished with cut-work lace or delicate embroidery, for instance.

None of this is uninteresting. I am quite drawn to facts like handkerchiefs figuring in the Household Rolls of Richard II of England; or the great medieval humanist, Erasmus, sagely advising children not to blow their noses on their hat or clothing, but to be "proper", and wipe them with a handkerchief. I am equally interested in stories like the Duke of Leicester snatching, in 1565, Queen Elizabeth’s kerchief "out of her hand and wiping his face" with it, thus causing mortal offence for there was in the gesture an "implied exchange of bodily fluids"; or the one about a Japanese geisha routinely carrying a handkerchief with a silk butterfly sewn onto it over a lace hole, so that when she waved the hanky in coquettish gesture, the breeze would pass through the hole and the silk butterfly’s wings would flutter.

What I find most absorbing in the context of handkerchiefs, however, is the associations, both dark and romantic, that go with them. And the representation of handkerchiefs in art.

Speaking of dark association, I was fascinated by an analysis in a long essay by Bill Long of the part that the handkerchief plays in Othello, that great, looming tragedy of Shakespeare’s. One knows the story well: the love between Desdemona and Othello soured by the malice of Iago, and Othello’s raging jealousy of Desdemona’s concern for Cassio taking a sinister turn, all over a ‘lost’ handkerchief.

When, in happier days, Othello gives his handkerchief to Desdemona, he tells her of its almost magical properties, for it was an heirloom in his family, given by an Egyptian sibyl to his mother as a charm to keep her husband’s love. Desdemona keeps the handkerchief close to herself, even kisses and talks to it in her lord’s absence, wipes his fevered brow with it when he is tired and anxious.

But when it is stolen from her, and lands through Iago’s machinations in Cassio’s hand, dark clouds begin to gather. Whispered innuendos, evil suggestions, hover in the air as Iago succeeds in convincing Othello about Desdemona’s infidelity. She and Cassio are lovers, he whispers: how else would that handkerchief, that charmed heirloom, be now in Cassio’s possession?

In that scene of towering fury where Othello asks Desdemona to produce that handkerchief ("Fetch’t, let me see it"; "Fetch me the handkerchief. My mind misgives") and she is not able to, everything changes. As one critic put it, the woven handkerchief about which Othello had told his wife a long story represents ‘woven fictions’. In the end, it is all about one’s own frailties, and about creeping, uncontrolled jealousy, that "green ey’d monster which doth mock that meat it feeds on".

Enough, however, of dark associations. There is so much romance that goes with the handkerchief, too. How gradually it evolved from a useful article to an accessory of great refinement is well documented both in the art and the literature of Europe: the knotted fringes of the seams, the simple edge picots, and the small scallops were all there for ladies of fashion to show off as they carried their kerchiefs to promenades and parties, above all to theatres especially when tragedies were being performed.

The elegantly dropped hanky, the exchange of glances from behind it, the code of messages that went with its use (drawing a hanky across her cheek meant "I love you", thus; a hanky held to the right cheek meant "yes", and to the left meant "no"; drawn across the forehead it signalled "we are being watched", and so on) is stuff that 18th and 19th century novels are filled with. And we see it in illustration after colourful illustration in fashion magazines that featured women of the beau-monde.

One would be in error, however, if one thought that the handkerchief was exclusive to the western world. One sees it nearer home, too, the rumal, as it was called here, appearing again and again in paintings. The use of the rumal in the eastern world is a whole story in itself, but of that another time, possibly.

Meanwhile, one recalls with pleasure works in which one sees men of rank with a rumal tucked into the waistband, hunters carrying it as they go out in the field, rulers sporting it in one hand even as the other carries a flower or a jewel. It seems to have been women of status who carried it with the greatest elegance, however. And it is they to whose world belonged softly plaintive words like these in a boli from Punjab: "chit lage na, udasan hoyi/ de gaya rumal kadhna" (Nothing avails me in my loneliness; there is no solace; all he has left me with is this rumal to embroider).