LGBTQIA+ people throughout history have fought battles for equality, shown solidarity with other oppressed groups and struggled for the right to live proudly. To survive in oppressively heteronormative societies, especially before homosexuality was legalised in the West, we’ve used fashion symbols to interact safely and show pride without endangering ourselves.
Prior to the rise of Christianity, queer people played key roles in society but the religion, and later the British Empire’s enforcement of homophobic laws, pushed us underground. Despite losing our openness, we endured by forming our own subculture as the antithesis to the mainstream. Our symbols shone through and, particularly in fashion, became a method of communication.
While specific fashions and symbols gained popularity later on, colours became an important – and, crucially, subtle – method of communication. In Victorian Britain, homosexual men wore green carnations in their lapels as an understated form of identification. Dr Shaun Cole, associate professor in fashion at Winchester School of Art, explains: "[Oscar] Wilde and his circle wore green carnations and the colour green weirdly continued to be associated with queer people throughout the 21st century." Later, before World War II, gay men wore red neckties and other accessories to identify one another.
Lesbians inspired by the ancient Greek poet Sappho’s poem describing a female lover wore violet to symbolise their sexuality – a reference to the line "all the violet tiaras, braided rosebuds, dill and crocus twined around your young neck". The colour’s popularity exploded after a 1926 French play was censored for using a bouquet of violets to signify lesbian love. In response, Parisian lesbians wore and gifted violets to one another in solidarity. Dr Cole adds: "Pinkie rings were also worn by gay men and lesbians. While not completely a signifier, it was one of those things that hinted at it, which is discussed in a lot of oral histories."
Colour can denote everything from mood to music taste and for queer people, coded colours help show pride loudly or subtly, depending on how safe they feel. These cues are still present today, especially for those of us who feel safer presenting our sexuality in a subtle way to lessen the threat of harassment and abuse. Student Kate Rice, who often wears the pink and purple colours of the bisexual pride flag, says: "I haven’t had super successful experiences coming out in certain aspects of my life – it’s a nice way for me to still feel happy within myself, so I can still wear these [symbols] around people that maybe didn’t accept it."
Androgynous model and activist Somriddho Dasgupta loves wearing colours that represent androgyny, including pink, purple and blue. He says: "When you let yourself be free, in a way, you also let others experience that freedom through identification. It is powerful."
These signals can also be a cheat method for finding dates. Bisexual student Kendal explains: "When I’m out in a club or something and I see a really hot girl and I see a bracelet or badge on a jacket with the pride flag, I’m like, 'Okay, I might have a shot here!'"
In the modern day, our symbols help identify allies too. Cosmetic doctor Vincent Wong explains: "When I first started going to the gym, I felt really uncomfortable with having a male personal trainer. I thought I’d be judged and one day, I noticed that he had a rainbow flag as his screen cover. I immediately felt more at ease and it turns out he’s an ally!"
"There have been numerous cases in the past where people in power haven’t been able to understand a person’s problem because they don’t share their background," Somriddho elaborates. "I really like that places such as hospital have their queer staff wearing pride badges because it allows queer patients to trust staff and feel safe."
Beginning as a subtle way to find one another, or profess love, these symbols became more political following the persecution of homosexual people in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. While in the camps, homosexual men were forced to wear an upside-down pink triangle as a means of identification.
In 1972, the memoir of gay concentration camp survivor Josef Kohout, written by Heinz Heger, was published, raising awareness of the pink triangle's use. In response, in 1973 a German gay liberation group called Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin called for queer people to wear the triangle for the dual purpose of memorialising those who died in the camps and protesting the continued discrimination of LGBTQIA+ people.
The triangle still crops up today and, like the word 'queer', it has been reclaimed to protest its origins. Kate paid homage to it as a teenager by trying to wear pink every day. She says: "Pink was considered a masculine colour until WWII and then Hitler used it to identify gay men, so it was associated with being feminine. So, [wearing pink] was also an acknowledgement of how stupid gender roles were. I really liked the symbol of solidarity it became after the war."
The flag is continually reimagined in fashion but one of the most powerful ways is as a pin worn by allies and queer people alike. Blogger and activist Eva Echo often wears a rainbow flag pin: "Rather than specifically going for a trans flag, I opt for something more inclusive. I don’t want to say to everyone, 'I'm trans, look at my pin', I want to say, 'We're diverse'."
Although I love flying the flag by wearing rainbow dungarees, the yellow stripe, which symbolises sunlight, resonates with me the most. I have an array of bright yellow outfits for days when I want to celebrate my queerness in a safe way.
Bee, personal stylist and founder of the brand QueerYorker, is "cautious" about incorporating queer symbols into her clients' style. "It’s important to note that we still live in a time where queer people’s safety is always in jeopardy. Hate crimes towards queer presenting people are still going on, especially for queer people of colour."
To help her clients feel proud and safe, she picks flag colours to incorporate into their wardrobes. "I do it in subtle ways such as getting a sweater that is a colour within the flag, like the colour orange – which means healing. That way it’s personal to the client and they know the meaning behind that particular orange."
Although we are able to exist legally in the UK, being LGBTQIA+ is still criminalised in 72 countries and is potentially punishable by death in 11. When it’s unsafe to wear an out-and-proud pride flag on your clothes, queer people adapt.
Wong, who is originally from Malaysia where homosexuality remains illegal, loves accessorising with a pride flag brooch and wearing the flag colours in the UK. He has to adapt, though, when visiting family in Malaysia: "As using colours from the flag has become a habit now, I do the same when I go home for the holidays but I choose more ‘conservative’ colours, such as dark green and darker shades of blue rather than bright pink."
For Snigdha, a student who identifies as bisexual and ace, the rainbow flag "symbolises how queer people are confident in their identity" and is a sign of a safe space. Even though homosexuality was decriminalised in India in 2018, "That doesn’t mean the lives of queer, trans and non-binary people has improved in any way. By wearing this symbol that invites hate with pride, we can reclaim our identity."
Today, LGBTQIA+ symbols are sold by fashion giants – who have been repeatedly accused of labour exploitation – during Pride Month. While mainstream representation is important, these pandering campaigns feel disingenuous when the same companies ignore queer interests for the rest of the year. Snigdha says: "Simply pasting a rainbow or a pun about queer people on a shirt doesn’t make you an ally. I’d rather buy from transgender and non-binary artists than a fast fashion brand mass-producing clothes and exploiting many marginalised communities in the process."
Many in the community avoid purchasing from fast fashion brands which have adopted our symbols for profit. Kate elaborates: "It feels so hypocritical, especially as a white, queer person. It feels like I would be conveniently forgetting my own privilege if I participated."
Speaking of privilege, Eva reminds us that for trans people, clothing is an armour to remind the world of their gender. She explains: "You’re saying 'I’m feminine' or 'masculine' in a very visual way. For example, your face, you can’t really get away from certain features of your face that let people know that you were assigned male or female at birth, but you have control over your clothing. It’s your way of saying, 'I am feminine, please treat me as such'."
Considering we’ve all been sequestered in our homes this year, it would be easy to assume that the importance of queer fashion symbolism has lessened. Yet as Bee explains, it is more crucial than ever. "Colours and queer symbols are imperative methods of communication between LGBTQIA+ [people]. With COVID and lockdowns, there are no safe queer spaces for us to get together so the next best thing is to communicate with other members of the community while out by wearing items that have the pride flag."
Dr Cole says: "With lots of these symbols, through the 20th century they were the kind of symbols where you had to have the cultural capital and language to be able to read them." These days, our most iconic symbol, the rainbow flag – redesigned in 2018 by Daniel Quasar to better represent BIPOC and transgender folk – is easily recognisable so we have adapted to show pride in more nuanced ways.
To a heterosexual world, wearing a colourful gender-conforming outfit contains no hidden messages but for a queer person who knows the meaning behind their chosen colours, it is a coded message of empowerment. Society works hard to pin us to earth with strict expectations of what femininity, masculinity and androgyny are supposed to look like; these seemingly immaterial colours give us wings to fly above oppression.
After centuries of (continuing) persecution, these loud symbols, radiant flags and subtle signifiers are our fashion-forward way of finding each other, memorialising our ancestors and their sacrifices, showing solidarity with other marginalised groups and, above all, portraying defiant pride. As Kate says: "It’s about pride, community and celebration."