by Susanna Forrest
When I was a teenager my granny gave me a single pearl earring. She had lost the other, and thought that perhaps I might wear the lone screw-on stud. This made my mother anxious. She explained that wearing one earring would make people think I was... Here things got a bit vague but I inferred she meant ‘a lesbian’. I never did wear the earring because I'm not a girl for pearls, but this new crumb of knowledge opened up a fascinating prospect: that as a grown-up one could signal something as private as sex to the world. While walking through the streets. While at work. The streets could be full of propositions, offers and invitations to intimacy. And this sexual coding was nothing new.
Dominatrixes in Weimar Berlin wore boots whose lace colours signalled their specialties. Gay men can employ the ‘hanky code’ rumoured to have been in use since the days of the San Francisco Gold Rush and now of rich and imaginative complexity: the colour and material of the handkerchief supposedly say one thing (red and white gingham proposes al fresco sex in the nearest park; black velvet, a desire to make films, etc) and the position yet another (left pocket, a top; right pocket, a bottom). In sixteenth century Venice, attempts were made to identify courtesans by designating certain forms of dress for them – bared breasts, say, or tottering chopines, or men's breeches – but noble women copied the courtesans and courtesans broke the sumptuary laws and wore pearls, so a man scarcely knew where he was on the Rialto.
The fact that the Venetian courtesans played fast and loose with the rules strikes a cautionary note. Like many open secrets, sexual coding through dress is subject to urban myth and constant reinvention. In 1984, American agony aunt Ann Landers was asked to explain the significance of men's earrings to a letter writer. Landers said that if a gay man wore an earring in his right lobe, it meant he was a bottom, and left a top. Her next mail sack was full of correspondents exclaiming that she was wrong, utterly wrong. Men, they wrote, were advertising to the world that they were married or unmarried, Republican or Democrat, or even opposed to the Vietnam War. Instead of a code there was a babel.
So wear two earrings in your left ear and a hoop, a star and a pearl in your right. Stuff a paisley silk handkerchief in your front pocket. Wear men's breeches with a string of pearls for a belt. And when someone asks you what your pleasure is, tell them. You can always clarify the matter in bed.
What you do to me. Wanting me to take you. My fingers in your hair. The things you say: Oh, I do desire you, baby, I do ...
e. e. cummings