Friday, March 31, 2006

The Non-Verbal Language of Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #283, March 31, 2006)

Leather’s use of symbols for non-verbal social communication is conscious, intentional, creative, inventive—and relentless. A person in leather is a veritable billboard. If you know how to parse the symbols, everything means something.

Let’s start with the basic concept of left and right. Items worn on the left (keys, armbands, wristbands, floggers, hankies sticking out of pockets) indicate the wearer is a top or prefers the active role. Such items worn on the right indicate the wearer is a bottom or prefers the passive role. (Items worn in the middle indicate the wearer is a “switch” and can be flexible.)

In social situations this left/right marking is handy. If you’re talking to someone face to face, and their accessories are on the same side as yours, that means you might be a good match.

If their accessories are not on the same side as yours, you are talking to another person who prefers the same role you prefer. In that case there’s nothing to stop you from switching your armband from one side to the other—unless they do it first.

Minnesota Leather Pride recently held a roundtable discussion on leather’s various symbols and what they communicate. Among the symbols discussed at the roundtable was the hanky code—displaying hankies in one’s back pocket whose colors correspond to various sexual activities in which the wearer is interested.

According to one source the practice comes from the San Francisco gold rush of 1849. Since the miners were mostly men, at evening dances they used back-pocket bandanas to indicate who was willing to lead (left pocket) or be a “girl” (right pocket). The modern hanky code started in the 1970s, when it was seen as a good way to visually signal sexual preferences in a noisy bar.

Communicating by using the hanky code is known as “flagging,” as in “See that guy flagging red right? Maybe you should go talk to him.”

If you see someone flagging a color that dovetails with your interests, go strike up a conversation and see what develops. You can also flag your interests, and maybe someone will strike up a conversation with you.

Ideally you’ll both be wearing the same color, but in opposite pockets. This is no guarantee there will be any attraction or chemistry between you, of course. But if the attraction and/or chemistry is there, the hankies can make a nice conversation-starter.

There are readily available lists of the different colors of hankies and what they mean. A short list might contain the ten or fifteen most popular colors; the most complete list I’ve ever seen covered two full pages in a magazine.

If the idea of having to memorize all those colors seems overwhelming, just remember that a) you can always have a cheat sheet in your wallet, and b) you only have to memorize the colors that reflect your interests.

There can be regional variations to the hanky code, and in the dim light of a leather bar it can be difficult to tell the difference between certain colors. When in doubt, ask, and see where the conversation goes.

Other apparel items that communicate status include hats, harnesses, collars (padlocked or not) and even button-fly jeans (certain buttons left unbuttoned).

Almost every surface of every garment is open to decoration that reveals something about the wearer—club patches, run pins, a studded vest or belt displaying a leather title. Even the decorations on a person’s skin—tattoos and piercings—communicate something.

This non-verbal language of leather evolved because it’s an efficient method of communicating if you know the code, and it’s hidden in plain sight if you don’t. It lets us screen to see if another person is “one of us,” if they “speak the language.”

There was a time when this was necessary, and perhaps it still is. But some people are starting to wonder if this colorful and rich language is marginalizing us.

Might the codes and protocols of leather be a turn-off to people, especially younger people, who don’t see the need to buy a new wardrobe and learn a new language in order to participate? If leather seems to lack an influx of younger people, that might be one reason why.

Victorian-era society had a rigid set of rules, codes and signs for courtship. Ladies of the era used their fans, gloves and parasols to signal interest, or lack thereof, to their male suitors. Someday the hanky code might seem as quaint.

On the other hand, author John Molloy’s 1970s-era “Dress for Success” books were popular because they demystified the code of corporate business dress. Three decades later, not much has changed—wearing the wrong clothes can still get in the way of career advancement.

Codes come and go. Some say the hanky code and leather’s other non-verbal signals are being made obsolete by the internet. Yet a recent internet search for “hanky code” showed that the idea is being appropriated by other people. (Christian hanky code, anyone?) Maybe the hanky code’s ultimate destiny is to be yet another gift from leather to mainstream society.

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