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The handkerchief code, also known as the hanky code, bandana code, or flagging, is a way of indicating, usually among gay male casual sex seekers or BDSM practitioners in the leather subculture in the United States, Canada and Europe, whether they are a top or bottom, and what kind of sex they are seeking, by wearing cotton color-coded handkerchiefs (bandanas), usually in the back pocket. This code was widely used in the 1970s, but is much less used today. (The terms bandana code, hanky code, or flagging are much more widely used among those in the leather subculture than the term handkerchief code.) It should be noted that this code has come into more general usage today. Therefore, while flagging a particular fetish/color is accepted as a valid indication of a fetishist's interests, it is not necessarily an indication that the wearer is a member of the leather subculture.
The wearing of various colored bandanas around the neck was common in the mid- and late-nineteenth century among cowboys, steam railroad engineers, and miners in the Western United States. It is thought that the wearing of bandanas by gay men originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush, when, because of a shortage of women, men dancing with each other in square dances developed a code where the man wearing the blue bandana took the male part in the square dance, and the man wearing the red bandana took the female part (these bandanas were usually worn around the arm or hanging from the belt or in the back pocket of one's jeans).
The modern-day version of this bandana code actually dates from the '70s when the New York City newspaper, The Village Voice, published an article suggesting that it would be easier for gay men in Greenwich Village to pick each other up if they didn't only have to rely on wearing their keys in their back pockets, left to denote active, right passive. The story suggested that they should all get down to the surplus store at the intersection of Christopher and Washington Streets where they could buy color-coded Levi's bandanas.
Although it was originally said in a sarcastic manner, the gay community took the recommendation to heart, not only in New York, but eventually across the globe. Although the code isn't as strong as it once was, it still exists in some circles.
How the bandanas are worn
The bandanas are worn on the left side of the body for tops and the right for bottoms. Today, they are almost exclusively worn (or "flagged") in the rear jeans pocket, just as tops wear their keys on the left belt loop and bottoms on the right. In the 1970s it was very common for men to wear their hanky tied around their neck (with the knot positioned on either the left or right side), or around the ankle, especially when wearing boots, or, when undressed. The bandanas have been worn hanging from the left or right side of one's belt. A go-go dancer at a gay club may wear the bandanas around the right or left side of his g-string to indicate what kind of sex he is interested in if he meets someone after his performance.
There is no universally understood color code, and there have been some regional variations. There is general agreement upon the colours for more common practices, particularly those with an intuitive relation between the color and the practice (e.g.: yellow for watersports, brown for scat, black for SM, orange for very advanced, very kinky, green for sex for money), but there is no absolute consensus for the more uncommon practices (those appearing toward the bottom of the list, or unlisted). The colours shown below represent a more or less common consensus.
|Orange||Few limits||Wearers of orange bandannas are among the most experienced of leathermen or fetishists. Their fetishes are so numerous, the wearing of numerous bandannas would be impractical, and unwieldy. Instead, these men flag orange. When worn on the left, orange indicates that the wearer will top in relatively any fetish, anytime, anywhere. Conversely, when worn on the right, it indicates the wearer will bottom in relatively any fetish, anytime, anywhere. In a 2006 article on InternationalLeatherman.com, site owner Tom Ferrari, a well-known and predominant leatherman of today who self-identifies as a highly experienced bottom, states that he, himself, flags orange. In the article, he relates that the Internet is awash in the misconception that orange flagged on the right indicates, "nothing right now" or "just cruising". He states that he traced much of this by direct contact with site owners who admitted cutting and pasting their pages of hanky codes from other websites. This was supported by typographical errors, and by underlying source for web pages. Mr. Ferrari cites, "Going back to the oldest records, and to our eldest members of the gay leather/BDSM community, we find that any color worn on the left indicates a preference for topping, and any color worn on the right indicates a preference for bottoming. The color indicates the fetish of interest." Mr. Ferrari also cites, "An excellent reference, and one of the oldest sources of this information is, The Leatherman's Handbook, by Larry Townsend". Mr. Ferrari is an occasional presenter at leather/BDSM/fetishist workshops and conferences.|
|Black||Heavy S&M||Indicates the wearer's interest in heavy sadism and masochism. This may involve whips, or other painful fetishes such as cock and ball torture. A top (sadist) wears black on the left, whereas a bottom (masochist) wears it on the right.|
|Grey||Bondage||Involves rope, straitjackets, handcuffs, duct tape, cling wrap (for mummification), sleep sacks, vacuum sacks (or beds), cages, and other devices and modes of limiting the bottom's ability to move or to escape.|
|Chamois||Motorcycle sex||Indicates the wearer is looking for biker sex or motorcycle sex. Most commonly, this involves a motorcycle as a prop, or as a sexual device. It may involve one or more bikers in the sexual activities. If the top has a motorcycle, the bottom wearing chamois may be asked or expected to wash or to polish the motorcycle.|
|Light blue||Oral sex|
|Robin Egg Blue (Pale Robin Egg Blue)||69|
|Navy Blue||Anal sex|
|Pink (Hot Pink)||Dildos|
|Charcoal||Latex, PVC, or Rubber Fetish|||
|Medium Blue||Uniform fetish||Wearing police uniforms or uniforms worn by other authority figures|
|Turquoise Blue (Printer's Cyan)||Aquaphilia||Having sex in water, like in a bathtub or swimming pool.|
|Teal||Cock and ball torture|
|Lime||Sitophilia||Eating food off someone's body or having food eaten off one's body|
|Sandalwood||Carpenter sex||Having sex in a work environment such as a carpenter's shop or automotive repair shop|
|Khaki||Military Sex (Uniform fetish)||Wearing military uniforms|
|Grey Flannel (not cotton)||Suit and tie fetish|
|Coral||Foot fetish (pinkies)|
|Kelly green||Hustler||John (left) or prospective sugar daddy (right)|
|Hunter green||Daddy/boy sex||Looking for a boy (left) or looking for a daddy (right)|
|Dark Pink||Tit torture|
|Purple (HTML/CSS color) ||Piercings|
|Lavender (Bright Lavender)||Cross dressing / Gender play|
|Mustard (Gold Ochre)||Size queen||Has big cock (left) or wants big cock (right)|
|Gold (Golden)||Menage-a-trois||Two looking for one (left) or one looking for two (right)|
|Peach||Bear or cub who is interested in sex with another bear or cub|
|Camouflage||Rugged outdoorsman||Having sex outdoors|
|Rust||Ponyism||Dressing as horses (may also include dressing as cowboys)|
|Dark Red (Maroon)||Piercing||Piercer (left) or piercee (right)|
|Magenta (printer's magenta)||Armpit fetish||Enjoys licking armpits (left) or having armpits licked (right)|
|Fuchsia||Spanking||Enjoys spanking (left) or being spanked (right)|
|Gold (metallic gold) lamé (not cotton)||Muscle sex||Looking for sex with bodybuilders|
|Silver (metallic silver) lamé (not cotton)||Starfucker||Looking for a rock star or male groupie|
|Doily||Tea room queen||Having sex in tea rooms|
|Black leather (not cotton) bandana||Leather fetish|
|Baby blanket||Infantilism||Enjoys dressing as an infant (diapers, bonnet, etc.)|
The bandana code in pop culture
- Peaches, the German-Canadian electroclash musician, has a song called "Hanky Code" in which she spells out the hanky code's various colors and their meanings.
- Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area San Francisco:1996--Chronicle Books ISBN 0-8118-1187-5 Page 18
- Simon Gage, Lisa Richards, Howard Wilmot Queer New York:2002--Unanimous Ltd ISBN 1-56025-377-0 Page 82
- The color charcoal was chosen because initially rubber was the most common material used for this fetish and charcoal is the color of rubber. Although rubber is still used, today PVC and latex are more commonly used for this fetish.
- This color and fetish is seldom listed on the color code cards handed out at gay leather fetish stores, although it is seen occasionally.
- The shade of purple used for the purple bandana is the shade now known as HTML/CSS Purple, even though of course the bandana code was invented long before web colors
- The color called mustard in the bandana code is identical to the color called goldenrod in Wikipedia (the color called mustard in Wikipedia is much lighter than the mustard colored bandana).
- The color called beige in the bandana code is identical to the color called zinnwaldite in Wikipedia (It is common for those in the baby boom generation to mistakenly think of beige as being the color zinnwaldite because in the 1960s, AT&T marketed a colored telephone for offices and homes in a color they called "beige" which was actually the color zinnwaldite.).
- Jacques, Trevor On the Safe Edge: A Manual for SM Play (ISBN 1-895857-05-8)
- Townsend, Larry The Leatherman's Handbook 1973