[special guestblog by n.]
One of the (admittedly few) problems I have with flagging is how to utilize it and retain my femme integrity, which is heavily bound up in a conscious and considered personal aesthetic. One of the purposes of flagging is the possibility of conveying complex messages about sexual interest through code. Code is, by its nature, a thing comprised in part of secrecy and knowledge – it is both a protective mechanism (only the initiated have the possibility of deciphering, and thus those outside of the culture pass it by unawares, an important consideration for any significant gathering of those who operate outside normative culture) and a binding agent (codes rely on the presence of both ‘writers’ and ‘readers’. Sharing knowledge creates social bonds). Therefore, in order for coding to be truly effective, it must be implemented in a manner which can be rendered undetectable by any but the initiated.
In the case of flagging – a visual and, most importantly, wearable form of code – this possibility of slipping below the radar of normative sexual culture is intricately bound up in the fashion decisions of individuals. Flagging or hankie culture was born in a social space where the wearing of kerchiefs was normal enough to go unnoticed by (possibly threatening) heterosexual parties, thus enabling the creation of a language that was both intelligible to those versed in it and safe from those who weren’t. This seamless blending of code and ordinary dress is a vital component of flagging’s success; it allows individual queers to flag whenever, wherever, without fear of harassment because flags do not look – to the casual (outside) observer – to be out of place.
The problem, then, with flagging and being femme, is that scarves and handkerchiefs do not always ‘fit’. Despite the prevalence of 50s-style Tattooed Pinups and Ironic (white) American Housewives in queer femme fashion culture (both aesthetic choices that lend themselves beautifully to the wearing of scarves) there are many other femme visual identities and not all of them are conducive to hankies. We may be harder to spot – in other words, no space has (yet) been carved out for femmes who choose to move beyond the accepted visuals of the 50s – but not all femmes buy into that particular area of popular reclamation, and we’d like to flag sometimes too. It’s clear that flagging options, like any language with a steadily broadening reach, must expand to include those new users who exist outside of the original scope. The trick is to find an alternate article of cloth/ing that can be utilized in the same manner as scarves: it must come in all manner of patterns, colours, textures; must be readily available and accessible; must have the capacity to be located to left or right, around the neck or head; must possess the potential to be integrated into a wide variety of femme aesthetics.
I considered stockings but, as max pointed out, the problem is that they go on both feet and thus both sides. Most jewellery, though coloured, does not come in patterns and is, besides, perhaps too obscure or easily mistaken for, well, nothing more than innocent adornment (which, of course, it isn’t always – but sex toys and jewels are another story, and besides, perhaps ought to be left to their own glory, rather than being appropriated by flagging culture. Plus, as previously discussed, rings already have their place as the ultimate anti-flag, and we wouldn’t want to impose on the heteronorm, now, would we?). Brooches, pins, or badges are a possibility – for example, they can be patterned, or even covered in fabric – but they’re also (generally) rather small. You’d have to get fairly close to somebody to ‘read’ the flag in question, which aside from being a bit iffy on the maintenance of personal space front (something with which femmes deal all the time as it is), also cancels out one of the other fundamental elements of flagging: the capacity to find those people whose interests might coincide with yours, even from afar.
And then it came to me. Ribbons.
They come in every colour, many fabrics, can be DIY-ed to the hilt (which is, I feel, rather important when trying to achieve a good double-flag or, say, a more unusual pattern like houndstooth), and are highly wearable and very versatile. You can style a ribbon much like a scarf – around the neck, head, wrist, arm – or you can branch out into, say, rosettes, bows, flowers, hat-bands, etc. Also, I really enjoy the process of subverting an ultra-pretty feminine article of innocent haberdashery into something actively sexual and, perhaps more pertinently for the femme identity – often read as straight and, thus, without sexual agency or desire – initiatory. Plus, the possibility of using ribbons as a flagging device extends the reach of female and femme flagging history, which can only be good. There are a bizarre number of scenes in the western literary cannon about women purchasing or wearing ribbons – keep it in mind when reading, say, Pride and Prejudice and you’ll find that white, middle-class women have been ribbon flagging for years. Admittedly their choice is usually limited to the paler tones, but hey, in the cloakroom at a country ball you’d take what you could get.