Nothing Says ‘Cool’ Like a Kerchief

Marlon Brando wearing a kerchief
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

I would venture that there is no surer way to signal that you mean business style-wise than draping a superfluous length of fabric around your neck. Pick your poison. A kerchief, cravat, or ascot will do. As will anything from a rarefied stock tie down to the humble bandana. As long as it’s mostly decorative, minimally functional, and tied somewhere between the head and shoulders, you’re good to go.

I love a neckerchief at any time of year — a silky number in winter round the neck of an itchy sweater, for example, or a workhorse cotton one to accompany a spring or autumn hike. But summer is when this style truly comes into its own. Whether worn at the collar of a light-weight suit or just paired with a simple tee, the colourful kerchief adds a point of interest to the male summer wardrobe that can be sorely lacking, particularly when compared to its feminine equivalent, which really comes out to shine in warm weather.

A more conventional men’s wardrobe, by contrast, suffers from the comparative blandness of the present-day go-to that is the shorts and T-shirt combo. Now sure, if you were cut from a more adventurous cloth you might dabble in some espadrilles and guayaberas, or a camp collar and a pair of huaraches, but for most lads looking for a little razzmatazz, popping on a checky bandana is far less of a reach. What’s more, the effort-to-effect ratio skews heavily towards the latter; a bandana is easy to find, cheap to acquire, and simple to put on but the effect can be downright transformative. 

Think about it: You see a guy in shorts and a T-shirt, even if they’re both really nice, and you probably don’t give it a second thought. But add the right bit of neckwear into the equation, and, boy howdy, now you have a fellow who makes an impression. 

Vintage man wearing a kerchief
Image credit: New York Public Library / No known copyright restrictions

Men have realised as much for a good long time — hundreds of years, certainly, before we were rocking shorts and tees. Bruce Boyer reckons one could point to the mid-seventeenth century as the moment in which the history of menswear first fully embraced the decorative power of draped neckwear. This was thanks to the adoption of an elaborate lace collar that not only wrapped around the neck but proceed to cascade indulgently down the shirtfront to be admired when a coat was left roguishly unfastened. 

In evolutionary terms, you could argue that this is the moment in which menswear emerges from the primordial ooze. Sure, blokes weren’t exactly going around in the bluff before this, but the arrival of fancy neckwear is arguably when the modern male wardrobe truly kicks into gear. Even to this day, the simple necktie continues to have a kind of totemic significance; a metonym, in essence, representing the entirety of the male wardrobe. It is not for nothing that Beau Brummel sometimes spent many hours at a time in front of an assembled crowd working on the perfectly tied cravat, or that an author as esteemed as Balzac reputedly wrote an exhaustive manual detailing thirty-two different ways to tie that self-same neck-based accoutrement. It’s because neckwear has been about the most exciting bit of decoration men have had at their disposal for centuries and it merits a touch of indulgence.

It’s also why you are spoilt for choice if you’re after some sources of inspiration for how to style your own choice of kerchief. The Duke of Windsor (formerly King Edward VIII) threaded the ends of his scarves through a finger ring before letting it hang down the front of his shirt. Fred Astaire used a tie clip to achieve a similar effect. James Baldwin deployed his silken scarves in ways that were every bit as bold and eloquent as his prose, while Peter Bogdanovich preferred the humble cotton bandana above all else and seemed quite annoyed when people thought otherwise: ‘They think they’re ascots,’ he pointed out. ‘Some people give me ascots. This is not an ascot. It’s a bandana.’

Naval soldiers wearing kerchiefs
Image credit: U.S. Navy / Public domain

I too favour the hardy bandana above all else, perhaps as a hangover from watching Peter Fonda in Easy Rider or Sam Neill in Jurassic Park in my younger days. I mostly like to channel a bit of cowboy flair, or a touch of the naval soldier and enterprising scout, albeit sans the woggle, which is that little loop they pass the ends through once it’s round the neck. That said, I have used a finger ring to this end once or twice, not unlike the Duke of Windsor, so perhaps I’m not quite the man of the people I imagine myself to be. And…come to thing of it…maybe I don’t look quite as dapper and confident as I think I do with a bandana hung round my collar bone after all…

No, perish the thought. I stand by it: Nothing says cool like a kerchief.