Monday, October 20, 2014


    Repeatedly through history clothing has been used in conscious ways to communicate quietly to those who know the signals being transmitted.  In 1977 a gentleman named Hal Fischer documented, for the first time, a whole sub-cultures sets of apparel signals.
    The emerging Gay community, really coming out of its societal closet for the first time in Western culture was still largely in danger every day.  Being overt was tantamount to walking up to someone and asking to be beaten, or thrown out of one's home.  So a whole dialect of the Attire language was slowly born that aided both in gay men identifying each other more easily, and with greater confidence; and in some cases within that dialect, simplified the process of determining whether another man was a suitable potential sexual playmate.
    The visual tropes that developed were so successful, that they have become iconic images of what people perceive that gay looks like.  Though, naturally, the reality is quite different, especially these days.
    Here are 6 different images from Fischer's work Gay Semiotics.

    Basic Street Fashion, soon to be called the Clone look, so named because it became without question the ubiquitous look for gay men all over the USA; rapidly spreading to other nations.  This look, unlike others in the dialect, continues to be a go to for many gay men.  And its interesting to note that it spread to the heterosexual community, and is now part and parcel of the male hipster wardrobe right now.
    Uniform street wear always incorporated some item that was a part of military or police gear.  In addition to what's pictured here, the Air Force flight jacket was very commonly used. Camouflage pants, and jackets, and military issue boots were worn as well.  I myself had my Dad's old Air Force captain's uniform jacket. I wore it till it nearly fell apart, then had it copied in leather, and had the service patches moved to the new jacket.  It was my personal icon.
    Forties Funk next, which I would call retro dressing, myself.  The image here is a pretty tame version, frankly, of what was worn; but the clothing of the 30s 40s and 50s was an easy, and at that time, cheap way to dress, that allowed a broader range of expression than the ready to wear for men at the time.  So, men of more arty bent often dressed this way.  It was certainly one of the dressing tropes I used for myself.
    Hippie street fashion.  This look, to my mind, is impossible to distinguish from hetero-hippie wear for men with our 21st century perspective.  What singles it out is a few subtleties.  The amount of jewelry, the bells, and the scarf were all less likely accessories for the straight hippie boys in the crowd.  But then again, within the sexually freewheeling counterculture of the hippie movement, the need for overt signals was less important than identification with counterculture overall. Its interesting to note that this look, without a single edit, could walk down the street of a major city without comment today. In fact, the young man sporting this outfit would be considered pretty cool looking.
    Jock fashion was a strong look within the Gay Community.  Whether the gent in question actually played sports, or was only trying to look like he did was immaterial.  What identifies this as a gay signal set is mostly the tightness of the clothing.  That, and the average straight guy wasn't going to be running around the streets in work out gear.  But the super short, super tight satiny shorts were a commonplace sight within the gay community.  The whole look communicated a youthful energy and a connection the masculine pursuits of sport, though filtered through the unique lens of that growing sub-culture.
    Lastly, the leather look, which has permeated the entire modern world by now, inspiring couture collections for women and men, and filtering through ready to wear at every level. In this trope the signals are not subtle, nor are they meant to be.  This entire look is about presenting oneself not only as a sexual being, but as a fiercely sexual one.  Everything here is meant to enhance perceived masculinity, and perceived sexual prowess.

    In addition to what you're seeing here, there was the universal hanky code.  The hanky code used the many colors of cotton bandana handkerchiefs to operate as a sartorial semaphore system.  A man using a particular color in a particular pocket of his jeans or leather pants was deliberately advertizing certain sexual interests.  Left pocket, dominant, right pocket, passive.  Light blue hanky, oral sex, navy blue, anal sex, red, fisting, and so on. The list is long, and sometimes a trifle confusing. Suffice it to say, if you've never looked at the hanky code listing, you're bound to find a kind of sexual interest you didn't know about before.
    What makes this last bit, the hanky code, so interesting is that never before has a system so complex and codified been developed to communicate direct information through apparel.  So as an example of the power of Attire to communicate to others it stands as one of the best examples we have.  Doubt it not, the Attire language has the ability to speak powerfully, and with great clarity when used to its fullest potential.


  1. Dear Lor, that's the most detailed hanky code I've ever seen. You'd have to carry the manual around to interpret it. And the tight satiny short-shorts? Never fooled anybody. The first time my former partner and I visited San Francisco, in the early 80s, we were fascinating to the locals because we didn't bear any obvious apparel cues at to what we were into. Semiotic dressing wasn't quite "the thing," in the midwest, so we seemed exotically enigmatic.

  2. The Hanky code kept being added to from the inception point in the 70s through into the mid 80s. This one is a pretty up to date listing.