Back in the dawn of time, before the internet and apps, gay kinksters had to find each other the hard way, by going to bars and actually meeting people. Most leathermen (which is what gay kinksters mostly were back then) figured out that going to bars or joining biker clubs was the best way to find what they were looking for and that there were leather and biker bars that catered to them.
But that still meant they needed to figure out who in that bar might be compatible. Sure, most guys in these bars were kinky (or at least gay), but doms need subs and vice versa. By the 50s, there was a code beginning to develop that allowed doms and subs to signal, or ‘flag’, which role they were interested in.
According to Thom Magister, one of the few surviving leathermen active in the 50s, the first gay kinksters dressed in denim, army fatigues, or the few kinds of leather clothing commonly available–mostly the motorcycle jacket and buckskin leather. To signal if one was interested in being dominant or submissive, they slid their belt-buckle to the left (for dominance) or the right (for submission). Leather was sometimes considered the prerogative of or a signal for dominance, so that subs would wear denim and t-shirts instead. By the 60s, however, as a wider range of leather clothing was becoming available, buckskin leathers became less common and leather was generally acceptable for both doms and subs. The black leather pants, chaps, and shirts were widely available.
By the 70s, a wider range of signals had evolved. Belt-buckles ceased to be meaningful, but the left/right distinction remained (although it was not 100% standardized–some older kinksters report that in their area it was reversed (right for dominance, left for submission). Wearing keys on one hip or the other became a common way to flag, and a chain worn around one boot or on one shoulder also worked. The Muir cap had become popular for doms, while subs sometimes wore baseball caps or rebel caps. (Although if you observe Tom of Finland‘s art closely, you’ll see that the guys in the Muir caps are occasionally the bottoms.) And by the 80s and 90s, there was a loose code by which doms wore items on their left side to signal a willingness to use them (a flogger, handcuffs, a hank of rope, etc), while a sub might wear such an item on his right to signal that he wanted a dom to use that item on him. Leather bicep and wrist cuffs on the appropriate arm became common as well.
So by the end of the 60s, it was becoming relatively easy for someone in a leather bar to figure out which guys were dominant and which were submissive. But as most kinksters understand today, it’s not enough to find someone who wants the opposite role–you need to find someone who wants the same type of sex you want. If you’re looking to get fucked, it doesn’t do you much good to find a top who just wants to piss on you.
Gay men, who never lack for ingenuity in matters of sex, developed the Hanky Code. The idea is that gay men signal the specific sex acts they are seeking by wearing handkerchiefs in their back pockets (left for top/dominant, right for bottom/submissive). There is a lot of confusion around the Hanky Code these days. Nowadays it’s not too hard to find ‘guides’ to the Hanky Code like this one:
These guides aren’t real–they don’t reflect the actual Hanky Code. If you look through it, you’ll see a lot of jokes–look at Mauve, for example, or Light Blue with White Stripes. Would anyone need to flag Apricot on the left or Lavender on the right? Would anyone ever wear Robin’s Egg blue on the right? Also, in a dark bar, could anyone really distinguish the different greens or reds, or some of the other colors?
These joke guides were published after the internet became a thing, so they mostly date to the 90s and after, and don’t really reflect the actual Hanky Code. Additionally, if you’re fairly kinky, you’re going to have to carry a veritable rainbow of hankies in your back pockets, which isn’t exactly a good look for anyone. Finally, back in the 50s and 60s, hankies only came in a half-dozen colors, so most of these couldn’t have been used in the past.
The real Hanky Code was very simple. There were only a half-dozen colors, because those were the only hanky colors generally available. Thom Magister suggests that the first Hanky Code was simply red for fisting. Yellow for piss play got added pretty soon, and black for BDSM was common as well. By the early 1980s, the second edition of The Leatherman’s Handbook by Larry Townsend included a list of 10 colors; the first edition, issued in 1972, did not include any reference to the Hanky Code, suggesting that the real development of the Code came in the 70s.
At some point in the 90s or after, flagging rules began to decline as leather and kink became more widespread and people began to get into the scene who hadn’t experienced the earlier years when experienced leathermen acted as gate-keepers and kept out many who weren’t seen as being serious. As a result, some men began wearing flagging on both sides to signal being a switch or just because they thought it looked cool and didn’t understand that there was a code to it.
These days, many, perhaps even a majority, don’t flag. The apps do our flagging for us, in far more detail than any combination of keys and hankies ever could. But older kinksters, those who fancy themselves as part of the fabled Old Guard, and those who are just historically-minded (like me) still like the idea of flagging. To me, flagging has an elegance to it, a statement this is about more than just sexy clothing.
Incidentally, if you’re really interested in the evolution of gay bars and their associated fashions, Thom Magister has produced a slim volume called Biker Bar. It’s a fairly simple essay detailing the changing look of the gay bar scene. He’s built a scale model of a gay bar and peopled it with GI Joe dolls dressed in appropriate fashions for the 1950s, 1970s, 1990s and the 2000s. It’s a delightful little book to page through, but unfortunately it’s out of print and used copies are expensive.