The handkerchief code (also known as the bandana code, and flagging) is a system of using color-coded cloth handkerchiefs or bandanas for non-verbally communicating a gay man’s interests in sexual activities. The code was most widely used in the 1970s in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe, by men seeking casual sex, or BDSM practitioners.
The modern hanky code is often reported to have started in New York City around 1970, when a journalist for the Village Voice joked that instead of simply wearing a set of keys on one side or the other (then a common code to indicate whether someone was a “top” or a “bottom”), it would be more efficient to subtly announce their particular sexual tastes by wearing different colored handkerchiefs. Also Alan Selby, founder of Mr. Leather in San Francisco, claimed that he created the first hanky code with his business partners at Leather ‘n’ Things in 1972, when their bandana supplier inadvertently doubled their order and the expanded code would help them sell the extra colors they had received. But with no real documentation each claim must be taken with a grain of salt.
While there was no single authoritative standard for the code. This table is drawn from Larry Townsend‘s The Leatherman’s Handbook II and is generally considered authoritative. Implicit in this list is the concept of left/right polarity, left as usual indicating the top, dominant, or active partner; right the bottom, submissive, or passive partner.
What color are you?
Check out the color chart below on the inside of the business card of Christopher Street clothing store All American Boy from back in the day.