When Worn Out West manager Michael Wolonsky arrived in San Francisco in the late ‘70s, the look for some gay men was labeled the “Castro clone.” They donned brown work boots, Levis 501 jeans shrunk to fit and as faded possible, and the piece de resistance- a colored handkerchief peeking out of the left (dominant) or right (submissive) back pocket.
Two decades later the most popular handkerchief colors sold at Worn Out West are light blue (wants head or an expert cocksucker), dark blue (fucker or fuckee), black (heavy S/M bottom or top), grey (bondage top or bottom) and red (fist fucker or fist fuckee). They are popular with young people and about 90 percent of Wolonsky’s customers know about the code. Black is also a popular color sold at The Seventh Heart, a clothing store located on the edge of Hayes Valley, but co-owner Jessica Cuevas sees the hankies a bit differently. “Most people around here don’t buy them for that old reason,” she says.
Origins of the code are as varied as the colors themselves. One theory is that handkerchiefs were worn by men during the Gold Rush era, while another claims the idea originated from an article written in The Village Voice during the ‘70s that suggested wearing colored bandanas as an easier way for men to pick up on one another.
For those in the know, the Hanky Code is a walking sexual advertisement used by some members of the gay and leather community. Even in the digital age when hook-ups are easier than ever thanks to the Internet, the code is a subtle tool to help users find their fetish soulmate. But is the tool used for cruising on the ‘70s and ‘80s gay scene making a comeback as the latest fashion accessory?
Nowadays, the code is everywhere- in stores on Castro and Folsom streets, on
the Internet and even in music. “Better know your hanky code…before you go and shoot your load,” warns singer Peaches in “Hanky Code,” a fun, synthesized dance track from her latest album, “Impeach My Bush.”
Mr. Marcus, the columnist behind “The Leather Bazaar” in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR), heard about the code when he moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles in the late ‘60s. Although he’s been involved in the leather community for over 30 years, Hernandez does not personally use the code. “When I wear handkerchiefs it doesn’t denote anything except that I use it to blow my nose,” he says. .
While most varieties are similar, there is no official Hanky Code, which can lead to confusion and misunderstandings. A Taste of Leather’s San Francisco Official Hanky Code includes over 50 different varieties, from the popular primary colors such as grey (bondage top or bottom) to some as unique as mauve (into navel worshippers or has a navel fetish).
“Most people will just learn the colors they are interested in,” says Hunter English, a retail associate at Mr. S. Leather.
The newest hankies to emerge include a black and white checked version which denotes safe sex; and for those into electricity- yellow with little black lighting bolts. Orange is a popular hanky, and when worn on the left it means anything,anytime,anywhere. “It kind of covers all of them,” says English.
But not all hankies are worn for cruising. At The Seventh Heart, fashionistas and the like have been purchasing the kerchief creations by Horseface. Created by San Francisco designer Mica, these hand-screened hankies are displayed around the mannequin’s necks like scarves. The store also sells hankies in the primary colors but they make no reference to the code. “They (customers) don’t buy it for a specific color they buy it for how it looks,” says The Seventh Heart co-owner Mark Hoke.
Fashion or function? It’s a personal decision. So the next time you enter that bar or restaurant, or just walk down the street wearing the latest hanky du jour, don’t be surprised if you attract more than a just a passing glance.