Hanky Panky

Handkerchiefs remind me of a lot of things. Tied around the neck, they suggest an old-fashioned country crooner. Worn as headgear, they bring to mind L.A. gang-members or possibly music video back-up dancers.  And if you wrap one around your face to cover your nose and mouth you’re probably holding up a bank in the Old West.

But in the 1970’s in certain social circles, if a man placed a handkerchief in his jeans’ back pocket he not only announced his homosexuality but also his specific sexual fetishes. The Hanky Code developed in gay communities in Canada and the United States as a means of identifying sexual partners based on practices and compatibility. Colours and patterns symbolized different activities, from the relatively-vanilla (light blue for oral sex) to more extreme (black meant S&M, understandably). Friendly orange conveyed the rather daring message that you were ‘up for anything’.

While the back pocket was the most common placement, hankies were also looped around belts or tied around ankles. Worn on the left side they meant you were a ‘top’ (the penetrating role) while the left side signalled you were a ‘bottom’ (the penetrative side). Inexplicably, the sides could reverse meaning depending on which coast you were on.

The custom is thought to date back to California’s Gold Rush days when, due to a lack of female settlers, men would wear red bandannas when taking the woman role during square-dances. Sadly, this explanation is probably apocryphal. The Code more likely grew out of gay men’s fascination with cowboys, construction workers and leather-loving biker gangs in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

When the Code was first put in print, in Larry Townsend’s second edition of ‘The Leatherman Handbook’ in 1983, the list of colours was relatively brief. Paradoxically, as the tradition died away, the variation of colour and patterned symbols grew exponentially. While many of these are fanciful and little-used, symbols such as gingham for outdoor ‘country’ sex, Houndstooth for biting and argyle for ‘nerd-lovers’ show that you can be funny about your fetish.

While I personally would be much too shy, there’s something admirable about the brazenness of sticking your sexuality out your back pocket. As the gay world moves out of bars and into cyberspace, we risk losing what little sense of face-to-face community we have left. As a contributor put it on TheHankyCode.net (a site which seeks to continue the tradition by way of iPhone app):

“We no longer need to wear our stripes like our gay forebears in order to find and connect with fellow gays. We can do all that in a dark room, with our computers. As a result we have once again become invisible. And as long as we remain invisible we will never truly gain our equal rights.”

We can’t escape the fact that the Hanky Code is as tied to the era in which it was born as a double-knotted bandanna. But, just as Tea party activists wear the three-cornered hats and the brass-buttoned jackets of the 1770’s, gay men will continue to pay homage to the 1970’s, their equivalent era of revolution.

For more on the importance of clothing during the gay rights era read ‘Out of the Closet’ by Max Mosher in WORN Fashion Journal Issue 12.

-Max Mosher
-Additional Research by Haley Mlotek
-Illustrated by Alexandra Barton

16 thoughts on “Hanky Panky

  1. mr. mosher has written such an impressive article and blog post!!! he must have had a really wonderful and attractive research assistant helping him……

  2. Dear Mr. or Ms. Wink Wink,

    Additional research for ‘Out of the Closet’ was provided by the lovely and talented Haley Mlotek, who writes those incredibly witty round-ups of interesting links on this here blog. She can be contacted at WORN Fashion Journal.

  3. Great connection, SJ! If i had known more about handkerchief symbolism for gangs, I would have mentioned it. Also, if I was more brave.

  4. Now I know why you want to find your Orange hanky so badly. Also, I need to pick up a magenta for Huckleberry. ALSO, alexandra’s illustrations are wonderful. ALSO ALSO, Haley is such the attractive research assistant.

  5. Yeah, no, I wouldn’t wear the orange one. only three of the examples apply to me, but I’m keeping those a secret. Because I’m so private about things like that,

  6. Interesting stuff, Max! I rather like this practice of putting it all out there. Not having to say it aloud, but being able to clearly state what you’re looking for up front must be pretty nice.

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