Sissies and Leather: A History of Gay Code

Gays have possibly never been more clever or creative than when they were coming up with ways to communicate through the closet’s walls. Sadly, those days are long gone.
June 15, 2012

Back in the ’80s, I remember how just wearing an earring was enough to let the world know you were gay. However, it had to be in your right ear. I learned this lesson the hard way one summer at band camp when our sexy drum major returned with a silver stud in his ear. I was secretly thrilled but when I mentioned this gay earring to one of the trumpet players, I was laughed out of rehearsal hall. “No, it’s in his left ear,” he said, telling me the politically incorrect phrase to keep it all straight. “Remember: left is right and right is wrong.”

Cut to 20-plus-years later and this rule of gay accessories doesn’t hold much anymore. In fact, when it comes to gay identifiers in fashion, these days it seems there are no rules. Gay men look and dress like straight men and vice versa. On a recent trip to a suburban Maryland Starbucks, I noticed a straight man in line whose look (watermelon polo, upturned collar, scruffy beard, tight stylish haircut) wouldn’t have been out of place at Eastern Bloc on a Wednesday. So when did yuppie dads start dressing like preppy daddies? How did we arrive at this cultural moment when fashion and other traditional gay signifiers rarely, if ever, give a clue to someone’s actual sexuality? To find the answer, you have to go to back to where this all started.

In the late 1800s, a fashionable young man in London by the name of Oscar Wilde started writing about certain breed of stylish boys that started to appear on the scene: the Dandy. This type of young gentleman was known for a colorful form of dress that broke from the grey palate of men’s clothing, with the additional flourishes of fancy gloves, decorative hats and wild scarves. These dandies, of course, were in most cases homosexuals and by dressing alike, they were able to find their fellow birds of a feather so they could, er, flock together. Wilde not only documented this group but quite possibly was its patron saint; he suddenly made gay men visible in polite society. Unfortunately for Wilde, his efforts to liberate his libido and that of his fellow dandies eventually landed him in jail.

Despite this, the trend of the effete but fashionable young man continued into the new century and reached its height in the 1920s. It even made it big in Hollywood way back in the day. Franklin Pangborn, a supporting actor in countless silent and talkie comedies, was arguably the first “queer” star of the silver screen who was veritably “out” with his fussy fashion and queeny attitude. He was known as a “sissy” but at least he was known. Other queer men aped this look along with its particularly swishy tones and gestures, using it as a way to find each other in a society that, at the time, was hardly accepting of any sexual difference.

Many trace the first modern gay community to World War II, when millions of men were drafted for the war effort and ended up meeting millions of other men just like them. However, fashion couldn’t provide a clue since the “boys in blue” were all wearing the same uniform. And merely the mention of the word “homosexual” in the armed forces could create suspicion or land you in the brink. So soldiers and sailors had to rely on less volatile words to figure out who was who. Thus the phrase “Are you a friend of Dorothy’s?”(inspired by the adoration of Judy Garland who played Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz) became an innocent way of figuring out if someone was gay. This was one of the first conversational gay signifiers that could reliably pick a Mary from the crowd.

In the uptight 1950s, post-War gay culture started forming in cities like San Francisco and New York. As the rest of the country dressed like Ike (and Mamie), fashion became bolder in urban areas with the gays leading the way, especially when it came to leather. Many gay men spent years fawning over men in form-fitting uniforms—which sometimes included leather. And so, in that era, a leather jacket meant one of two things; you were a Hells Angel or a heavenly Queen. The classic image of the super-sexual Marlon Brando donning his black jacket for The Wild Ones poster just about sealed that deal.

With the arrival of the ’60s, American fashion took a more colorful turn, with gays at the forefront, of course. It was during the latter part of this revolutionary decade that bright pastels (like purple and pink) combined with tighter, feminine-style fits made it easy to spot gays shaking their booty of the floor of the discothèque. A great onscreen example of this look is the movie The Boys in the Band, where the message of self-loathing homos is tempered by the fabulous fashions on display.

The end of that decade saw the Stonewall Riots along with the first Gay Pride March in 1970, and suddenly gays were out, loud and proud. Strangely enough, it was during the 1970s that the gays also started dressing alike en masse. This was the beginning of the “clone” look, where a certain uniform (tight blue jeans, tight white tank or T, porn-stache) became a way of definitely and without apology saying, “I do dudes.” This new look was different, too, in that it was intensely masculine, with none of the fey colors or cuts that used to be associated with gay men. It was a hot look for the height of the sexual revolution and the message was clear; as the nation’s sexual mores loosened up, homos were not going to be left behind. They wanted their place at the orgy and they were going to have it.

It was during this era of sex, sex and more sex that one of the more unique fashion statements appeared in a distinct and daring gay subculture: the hankie code. Men who frequented the dark, dank hardcore joints like the Mine Shaft, the Spike and the old Eagle would wear different colored handkerchiefs in their back pocket, with the hue of the hankie indicating what type of activity they were into (black for SM, red for fisting, yellow for water sports, brown for—don’t ask). And, similar to the earring, the side you wore the hankie on was important as it indicated a man’s sexual role (left was dominant and right was submissive).

When the ’80s hit, AIDS devastated the gay community and, along with it, the sexual freedom and liberation that the revolution had spawned. Suddenly, gay culture got hushed up and gay signifiers became more important, though hardly subtler, in figuring out who was who. Frosted hair—check! Suede shoes—check! Eyeliner (before it was “guyliner”)—check! It was also during this decade that a guy’s taste in music became a good clue. If you knew someone “loved” Madonna you could be pretty sure it was not because she was hot (even though she was!). For years, show tunes had been the dominant gay music but during the ’80s popular bands like Erasure, The Smiths and Wham! (led by frosted front man George Michael) developed serious gay followings. If you met a guy in college with more than one Morrissey poster in his dorm room, chances of scoring were high.

Back on the fashion scene, by the 1990s the beginning of the end of this traditionally reliable gay fashion had begun. Straight men started adapting the clothes of gay men and a new archetype was born—the so-called metrosexual. And it was more than clothes that made this new sort of man as straights began putting moisturizer on their face and product in their hair. They even started going to spas. The earring lost whatever significance it had.

This trend of blending the gay and straight look has only accelerated in the new millennium. Brands like Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel and Uniqlo appeal just as much to gay men as they do to straights and have created a sort of generically hip look that often has little to do with which team you play for. In New York at least, it can be very difficult to tell a gay man from a straight man on the sidewalk by sight alone. You need more detailed information; like favorite TV show (American Horror Story or Smash), favorite music (Scissor Sisters or Kylie Minogue) and favorite website (, of course!). But even these are not 100 percent reliable as straight people have discovered show tunes and Kylie performs for the Queen (the real one, that is).

In today’s world, there is one true gay signifier but it has nothing to do with fashion or conversation or culture. For more than 100 years, the point of publicizing these signifiers was to identify gays in a crowd. Now there is a much more efficient and effective way to accomplish this task. It’s all done for you by a little piece of software called Grindr. This location-based hook-up app (and its imitators) is the newest way gays identify each other in the world at large.

You have to wonder what Oscar Wilde might think of this thoroughly modern way of hooking up. I think he would be thrilled by the ease with which you can find hundreds of gay men instantly and even see what they look like (if their pictures aren’t fake, of course!). But surely Mr. Wilde would also mourn the loss of the unique look and attitude he pioneered that used to identify gay men as separate from the flock; beautiful creatures who were utterly fabulous, extremely refined and uniquely flamboyant. Some might see the end of a gay look as a sign of progress or equality. But as gays continue to move into the mainstream—and as straights continue to co-opt the gay aesthetic—we are also losing the culture that was part of what made us different  and exciting in the first place.


"Dandyism" actually predates Wilde by a century. The first identified 'dandy' was Regency-era Beau Brummel. The Prince-Regent was no slouch in the clothing department, either. Ironically dandyism as epitomized by Brummel represented a Romantic reaction to the powdered wigs and silks of the 18th century, placing a greater emphasis on good taste and elan than garish displays of wealth.

With the advent of Victorianism, dandyism fell in to a deep slumber in Britain but the spirit was kept alive in France throughout the 19th century. Baudelaire defined the dandy as a man who raised aesthetics to the level of religion. Huysman's A Rebours (Against Nature) was Wilde's bible. Wilde and HRH Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (Edward VII) were largely responsible for the return of Dandyism to Britain. His Majesty was known for his impeccable taste in food, women, and clothes.