Before hook up apps and dating sites featuring lengthy bios explaining the ins and outs of your entire sexual repertoire, the only way to meet people was to do so in person. But without the comfort of a magical block button, or the ability to swipe through a room worth of potential suitors, gay men had another way of signaling their sexual interests towards one another.
This developed into the Hanky Code – big in the 1970s, it was a colour-coded system, which informed others in a stand out way on what you were looking for with your potential sexual partner. This helped avoid saying it out loud (particularly helpful in noisy and distracting environments such as gay bars or fetish clubs) whilst also being discreet and obvious only to those in the know.
The wearing of handkerchiefs was said to have followed the Gold Rush in San Francisco. A shortage of women meant men square dancing with one another became more commonplace. It was agreed by those involved that the lead would wear a blue bandana representing the typically male parts of the dance whereas those who wore the red took the part of what was traditionally the female. There was nothing sexual meant by the wearing of the hanky back then, so where did the code of fetishism begin?
It isn’t completely known as to where the code originated as it differed from region to region. But one theory is that in 1971 when a journalist for the Village Voice in New York City joked that simply wearing keys on your trousers to indicate who is a top and who is a bottom wasn’t detailed enough towards wants and desires. Meaning a more meticulous system to announce particular sexual focus was required.
Each colour had a specific meaning, but in most cases, the colours chosen had many variations in hues and tones. Completely changing the meaning with the adjustment of a simple shade. For example, seeing a man with a blue handkerchief could mean anything from oral sex (light blue) to genital torturing (teal) – not something you want to get mixed up – making it a relatively flawed system.
But what was truly flawed was not only did the colours have meaning, but which pocket you wore the hanky would also determine a pretty crucial factor. The left back pocket tended to mean you were the more dominant or active one in the relationship whereas the right was more passive or submissive in nature. So you didn’t just need to find a man of matching colour, to be completely compatible they also need to wear it in the opposite pocket and this was all before even deciding if you were attracted to them. It was a giant sexual game of Where’s Wally? and if you did find Wally you most likely found a man who was into shaving both himself and his partner (red and white striped hanky).
Perhaps this explains today’s market for online dating. All I know is we will never leaving the house with a blue handkerchief hanging out of our pockets, just in case there is a 70s revival and we find out the hard way.