Pocket Square Rules

When choosing an outfit, particularly for more formal occasions, it’s commonplace to have a smart suit, good shoes, and a nice watch to complement your look. But sometimes it can be easy to forget about those extra special details like a classic pair of cufflinks or an elegantly folded pocket square.

While most people will be familiar with the concept of a pocket square, for those who aren’t, it’s a small square piece of cloth, folded and placed in your jacket breast pocket. They are absolutely brilliant for adding a touch of individuality, flare and sophistication to your outfit.

Ultimately a pocket square is a simple yet highly effective way of elevating your look, involving hardly any effort at all!

However, this poses a significant question: What are the rules that come with adding a pocket square to your outfit? Luckily, you came to the right place to learn all about it, so let's get into the basics of pocket squares.


When to Wear a Pocket Square

Nowadays there are very few hard and fast rules of when you should or shouldn’t wear a pocket square.

If you’re heading to a formal dinner, you will likely be the odd one out if you don’t have a neatly folded white pocket square in your tuxedo breast pocket. But other than that, the choice is really up to you. What’s great these days is that the pocket square can be worn very effectively, not only in formal settings, but as part of a smart-casual outfit, without a waistcoat or a tie.

Essentially, if you’re wearing a jacket with a top pocket, you can wear a pocket square and look good!

Indeed, it's often the accessories, not the suit, that really make a statement. And you don’t need to be all singing, all dancing to stand out. The complimentary tones and considered folds of a well thought out pocket square have quite as much power as an expensive suit or watch.

So, in summary, a pocket square will be required for formal events where a tuxedo is worn. In this case, a white pocket square should be worn with a black tuxedo or vice versa. Other than that, the choice is yours. But if you want to cut a dash at an event, party, dinner, or just out and about, I’d strongly recommend wearing one.


Pocket Square Style Rules

You might have come here thinking there are a confusing number of pocket square style rules out there, and you’d be right! As fashions have changed over the decades it’s got a bit messy in terms of what is and what isn’t OK.

Pocket squares were in fact created to break the formal rules of menswear, as they are not required to match your tie, or anything else in your outfit for that matter. The pocket square's goal is to subtly catch attention of the people you are in the company of, and how you decide to do that is very much down to your own personal preference.

However, a key component in creating a classy pocket square look is making sure that you are not overwhelming people with the pattern or colour. If you have a colourful tie with a busy design, it’s best to wear a solid colour (or simple pattern) pocket square or vice versa.

If you’re just starting out with pocket squares, opt for the simple Presidential fold, which can be worn effortlessly for any event. When you get more confident in folding your pocket square you can explore the other pocket square folds HERE.


Pocket Square Matching Rules

Different outfits will bring about other rules that must be applied to ensure your pocket square effortlessly completes your look. Remember, the purpose of your pocket square is to either harmonise or contrast (not clash) with your other accessories and your suit. If you keep this rule in mind, you’ll be OK.

One of the most common pocket square-related questions revolves around the issue of wearing one with a tie/bow tie. Rules for coordinating your pocket square and tie cause mixed reactions. There are those people out there who think having the exact same fabric for both is a fashion faux pas. Ultimately the choice must be yours and if you like the matching look then go for it.

However, probably the best way to match a tie and a pocket square is to make sure they complement each other instead of matching exactly. For example, if your tie is patterned, your pocket square should ideally be a plain block of a complementary colour. If you have a paisley tie, your pocket square might therefore pick out one of the colours from the tie.

Alternatively, if your tie is plain, a patterned pocket square, (in a complementary colour) will look very attractive.

You do have the option to combine a patterned tie and pocket square but make sure one has a smaller or more subtle pattern than the other. And remember, as long as the colours are right, it should work well. As a word of warning, do be aware that getting a combination of two patterns right can be tricky, so spend some time looking at different options before you commit.

In terms of colours, always look for complementary tones and avoid clashing colours. You can find more suggestions for colour-matching below.

It’s also effective to match your pocket square with your shirt; luckily, this is one of the easiest ways to make a link between your pocket square and your outfit. Suppose you have a blue, red, or white shirt, you may wish to choose a pocket square of the same colour. The same goes if you are wearing a shirt with a pattern; it is best to have a pocket square with a similar design to help add to the consistency of the look.

Although it might sound obvious, your pocket square also needs to look good with your suit itself. Don’t spend so long checking it doesn’t clash with your tie, shirt, socks etc. and forget that it needs to go nicely with the fabric and colour of your jacket too. If your suit is made from a plain material there’s plenty of room to experiment with the colours, patterns and textures of your pocket square. If, however, your suit is tweed, check or a more vibrant design, the etiquette would be to go for a plainer pocket square to bring a sense of balance to the whole ensemble.


Pocket Square Rules Without a Tie

With different looks come different pocket square rules. Of course, many people choose to combine a pocket square with their tie/bow tie – either in a matching or contrasting colour/design. But this is by no means a requirement. In fact, subtracting the tie from your look can highlight the appeal of your pocket square and make for a charmingly relaxed, smart-casual appearance.

Without a tie you are afforded greater freedom to play with your appearance. You may wish to think about matching the pocket square with your shirt, shoes, or even your socks. Alternatively, let your pocket square speak for itself and make it the feature piece of your outfit. You can do that by using a stand-out colour, or a pattern that draws the eye and attention of those around you. You can also try one of the many different folding techniques to create an eye-catching twist. The key with this approach is to stay classy and avoid looking like you’re seeking attention or trying to shock those around you.


White Pocket Square Rules

As previously mentioned, some occasions will definitely call for a pocket square of specific colour, such as the classic white pocket square with a black tuxedo. Any truly formal event will require a white pocket square to compliment and give a sophisticated finish to your appearance.

But the white pocket square works equally well with a tuxedo as it does a regular suit. This means that a simple white pocket square is also ideal for weddings, conferences, and other formal and semi-formal events. It’s a go-to accessory and should be the staple of any gentleman’s wardrobe.

If you opt for a plain white pocket square the two most common folding options are the Presidential Fold and a more conservative Puff Fold. You can try those and some other fold types HERE.


Pocket Square Material Rules

Pocket squares come in a wide variety of fabrics, so it stands to reason that these materials have their own set of governing laws.

Silk pocket squares are perhaps the most common due to their luxurious smooth and elegantly glossy finish. The softness of the material makes them very versatile and therefore they are perfect for beginners; in fact, it takes very little effort to make a silk pocket square look good! The only negatives are how expensive they can be and the fact they require gentle treatment and dry-cleaning to avoid damage. Remember to keep your silk pocket square away from anything wet as this will leave unremovable water marks.

Cotton pocket squares are very comfortable and the easiest to maintain. Cotton is generally a durable material which makes it simple to store, machine washable, and cost-effective for those who may not want to spend as much as on a silk pocket square. However, make sure you follow the care instructions carefully as washing may cause shrinkage. Cotton pocket squares will also require ironing to get rid of those stubborn creases.

Linen pocket squares are available with both thinner and thicker textures. This means folding can be either easy or more challenging. Make sure you feel the weight and texture of your linen pocket square before you buy it to ensure you’re comfortable with it. A bonus point for linen is that it can add variation to the jacket you choose to match it with – linen is by its very nature, a textured material. However, linen pocket squares tend to be expensive and they must be carefully washed (usually dry-cleaned only). Similar to cotton, they will also need significant ironing to get rid of stubborn creases.

Wool pocket squares are more commonly used in the winter months due to their thick and warm texture. What makes wool pocket squares unique is that they come in a variety of different kinds of wool. For example, Alpaca wool has more of a silk-like texture. Angora wool tends to be best for retaining heat and is also very soft. Cashmere pocket squares are beautifully soft. But, you need to be prepared for the challenges of caring for a wool pocket square. They will all require dry-cleaning, they can be permanently damaged if wet, and there’s an increased chance of attracting moths and other small insects, particularly if they are stored away for long periods of time.

The final and most affordable option is the polyester pocket square. It’s light weight, mimics silk, and has a hugely diverse range of colours and patterns to choose from. They are simple to clean, store, and are the least likely to show signs of creasing. However, polyester looks cheap. I’m sorry to say this but it’s true! This type of material has an unmistakable sheen, that attempts and fails to look like pure silk. A true gentlemen would never wear a polyester pocket square, or any other accessory for that matter. I might sit on the fence about a lot of fashion choices but this one I’m sticking to my guns – don’t do it!

As a rule of thumb, the finer the suit fabric the rougher you can go with the pocket square material and vice versa. So, if your suit is tweed, consider a silk or cashmere pocket square and so on.


Pocket Square Colour Matching Rules

When shopping for a new pocket square, you’ll come to realise there’s almost every colour and pattern imaginable available to you, so you best believe there are some rules to follow! But don’t worry, it’s not too complicated…

Let’s start with the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. These colors can certainly be paired with a suit or tuxedo. But straight up primary colours are rarely used as they often appear stark and monotonal – they are not usually very pleasing to the eye and look quite ‘basic’ and one dimensional.

Next are secondary colors; purple, orange, and green. These colours certainly have a bit more depth and interest to them.

However, what works best is using various shades of these primary and secondary colours. For example, instead of bright red you could use magenta, vermilion, burgundy or claret. Using shades or tones of primary/secondary colours allows for greater depth and sophistication in your look.

To coordinate these colours effectively it’s very important to follow certain colour-matching rules and I strongly recommend utilising a colour wheel to help you.

The key is to pick colours from opposite sides of the wheel as these naturally complement each other. For example, on the colour wheel you’ll see blue and directly opposite that is yellow. These colours complement each other and therefore a navy blue suit with a mustard pocket square can look amazing!

You can also play around with different shades of the same colour by pairing a darker colour and a lighter version of that same colour, such as navy blue and pale blue. You may have a navy blue bow tie or tie and pair it with a pastel blue pocket square. Or you could wear a bright magenta tie/bow tie and have a pastel pink pocket square.

These are just some ideas to get you thinking about attractive colour combinations, but if you use the wheel you can’t really go too wrong.

If colour just isn’t your thing and you prefer a more conservative look, choose a pocket square that is only a shade or two lighter than your jacket and go for a Presidential Fold, or something that provides just a little bit of contrast such as a grey textured wool pocket square.


Embrace the Pocket Square’s Power

Hopefully this article has provided you with some useful tips for choosing and wearing your own pocket square. If anything, it serves as an introduction to the subculture that has formed around this small and unassuming accessory.

The humble pocket square is perhaps one of the most underrated additions to menswear. But when worn correctly they can elevate an outfit from the mundane to the magnificent.

Sure, there are some rules you might want to abide by in order to achieve the full potential of the pocket square, but if you keep the basics in mind, you can’t really go too wrong.

Tie or no tie? Patterned or plain? What type of fold? What material? Now it’s time for you to explore the world of pocket squares, find what suits your style, and embrace the power of this sophisticated and elegant accessory!


Pocket Square Style Guide Summary

  • Choose a complementary colour from your shirt or tie as the main colour for your pocket square.
  • Think carefully about the design/pattern of your accessories, ensure some parts of your outfit are plain block colours which will coordinate with the colours in your pocket square or tie.
  • Match your pocket square fold to the occasion. For formal occasions stick to the Presidential Fold, for more casual occasions you can show off with a classic Puff Fold or one of the more flamboyant folds like the Scallop Fold.


Other useful resources...

  • For 9 ways to fold a very handsome pocket square, try our 'Dapper Ways to Fold a Pocket Square' guide.
  • Our ‘How to Tie a Bow Tie’ guide provides step-by-step instructions to help you tie the perfect bow tie. Here you’ll find a really useful video and written instructions.
  • If you’re interested in the history of bow ties and the different shapes and designs available, you may like to read our ‘Types of Bow Tie Styles’ article.
  • Have you ever wondered when’s a good time to wear a bow tie? Try our ‘When to Wear a Bow Tie’ article to get some inspiration.
  • If you're uncertain whether you should opt for a pre-tied or self-tie bow tie, have a read of our 'Pre-tied Vs Self-tie bow tie' guide.
  • Are you attending a wedding this year? You might be a guest or a groom wondering whether you should wear a necktie or bow tie. If so, our useful ‘Bow Tie or Tie?’ guide might help you make up your mind.
  • For style tips and advice on choosing the best bow tie to wear to a wedding, for grooms and guests, try the 'Wedding Bow Tie Ideas' guide.
  • And for the ultimate guide to bow ties try our 'Definitive Bow Tie Guide'.