Monday, April 30, 2012

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: An Italian Linen Handkerchief, 1600

Italian Linen Handkerchief
The Victoria and Albert Museum

Plain linen handkerchiefs have been around almost literally forever and have long served the same purpose that they do to this day.  However, in the Sixteenth Century, a fashion arose wherein decorative handkerchiefs carried purely as fashionable accessories.  These delicate articles were popularly given as fashionable gifts, especially on New Year’s Day.  This was a habit which was especially enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth I.  However, the gift of a handkerchief usually carried romantic significance.  During courtship, the couple exchanged symbolic gifts such as gloves, ribbons, rings and handkerchiefs. The acceptance of such a gift indicated a binding commitment and, as the V&A reminds us, “could be used as proof of betrothal in the case of any disputes.

This Italian example dating to the early Seventeenth Century (about 1600, actually) has whitework embroidery which has been worked in detached buttonhole and satin stitches, needle lace and cutwork decoration.

Cutwork adornment is the earliest form of needle lace and was originally based on a woven ground, from which areas have been cut away. Elaborate cutwork was an important decoration on fashionable dress for both men and women from about 1570 to 1620.  As was the style of this era, the cutwork decoration is located at the handkerchief’s four corners .

The handkerchief has survived all of these centuries because it was intended as an accessory and was never used for less-elegant purposes.  Somehow, it ended up in the collection of  the English lace dealer Samuel Chick from whom it was purchased by the V&A in 1906.

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