I often get stopped in shops. Not because I look authoritative or have a habit of folding clothes while shopping (though, like any good citizen who’s worked in retail, I try to leave things neater than I found them) but because of a shining bit of silver clipped to my belt loop. Turns out, one of my go-to accessories – something that I see as a signifier of identity to fellow queer people – holds a far more prosaic meaning among the general public. The functional yet fashionable carabiner, which to me is a subtle indication of my sexuality and an expression of gender presentation, is to most people just a convenient way to carry keys. So when I saw carabiners popping up on spring/summer 2023 runways last month, I was both surprised and curious about its leap into haute couture.
With several runway appearances, the carabiner added an element of rough-toughness to pretty pastel cardigans at Christopher Kane and adorned leather belts at Michael Kors. Designer Heliot Emil’s industrial collection of avant-basics saw angular, geometric examples dangling from belt loops and leather skirts, as fasteners for intricate tops and dresses and even attached to phone cases. And in one of my favourite iterations, the cleverly constructed skirts from designer duo Chopova Lowena featured delirious mixes of clashing tartan, fringe and huge leather waistbands, all held together by countless gleaming carabiners. Already favoured by the likes of Willow Smith and Dua Lipa, the London-based designers use the accessory to add an unexpected, playful twist on the Y2K schoolgirl trend.
Maybe this sudden adoption of the accessory shouldn’t shock me. Similar to the act of painting one fingernail a different colour from the rest or wearing lavender, carabiners are one of those many little flags that can be a clear signifier to other queer people while appearing completely unremarkable to outsiders. The reality is that these simple metal clips have long been a coded signal for WLW (women-loving-women: an umbrella term that encompasses lesbian, bisexual and queer women).
These simple metal clips have long been a coded signal for WLW (women-loving-women: an umbrella term that encompasses lesbian, bi and queer women).
In Alison Bechdel’s early ‘00s graphic memoir Fun Home, a butch working-class woman who proudly swings a set of keys from her belt loop is the catalyst for the author’s childhood sexual awakening. (Or perhaps it’s a sexuality awakening, as Bechdel is drawn to the woman in part due to attraction and in part due to the recognition she feels at seeing another visibly queer woman for the first time.) Even more on the nose, in October 2022 queer magazine Autostraddle published a comic called Carabiner - A Love Letter which acts as an ode to the tool and its many functions. Like Doc Martens or thumb rings (two other perfect signifiers for WLW), it’s a sartorial stereotype that’s undeniably accurate.
Carabiners have also been quietly holding things together in fashion for years, from accessorising utilitarian workwear such as Dickies to more eye-catching iterations, like the iridescent, oil-spill rainbow version that Kim Jones designed for Louis Vuitton in 2017, or the striking carabiner heels released by Filling Pieces in 2020. Even the godmother of punk herself has fallen for the carabiner: Vivienne Westwood’s interpretations come in gold and silver, shaped like the brand’s iconic orb or as a stylised, schoolboy outline of a penis. Which is kind of ironic, considering that the carabiner’s fashion associations are far from phallic.
Though the importance of carabiners in lesbian culture is clear, the origins of the accessory aren’t, as it’s impossible to know exactly when carabiners were invented. The word itself dates back to German soldiers known as carabineers who, as far back as the 16th century, would use a hook mechanism to attach their guns to their belt or boot for easy access. The modern form of the carabiner that we’re most familiar with today was first produced in 1911 by German climber Otto Herzog for hiking purposes. Inspired by similar models used by the Munich Fire Brigade, he created a steel loop that could be easily opened with one hand while clinging to a rock face or clambering over shingle. Over the next few decades these became lighter, more sophisticated pieces of kit — an easy and practical way for working-class people, as well as climbers, to carry around equipment or keys.
It’s these working-class roots that led to the lesbian adoption of the carabiner. The number of women in the workplace soared during WWII as they filled the roles left behind by men going to fight on the front line. We're all familiar with the iconic Rosie the Riveter propaganda poster, the determination on her face matched only by the precision of her winged eyeliner and arched brows. But unlike Rosie with her perfect red lipstick, the women who worked in manual labour were usually more butch than femme. They frequently took on blue collar jobs as more traditionally feminine industries like sewing or secretarial work would have been closed to them due to their unconventional gender presentation.
After the war ended, women working outside the home in any capacity were often reluctant to give up their newly won financial freedom and independence. The carabiner as a lesbian signifier is therefore inextricably linked to female liberation and working-class aesthetics. There’s also a suggestion that carabiners formed a lesbian alternative to the hanky code, whereby gay men would flag their sexual preferences to each other by tucking a coloured bandana into the left or right back pocket. Lesbians would indicate whether they were a top or bottom depending on which side they hung their carabiners — a deft way, easily overlooked by straight people, to find a compatible lover.
Of course, sexual preference often can’t be summed up so neatly, and neither can identity. A carabiner doesn’t suggest the wearer identifies as a lesbian, or even as a woman at all. I wear a carabiner as a signifier of my queerness as a non-binary person, rather than as a gay woman. Similarly, many butch lesbians (including icons such as Leslie Feinberg, author of Stone Butch Blues) also express their gender identities in ways that go far beyond the rigid boundaries of male and female. And of course, it could simply be that the hottie you see on your commute with the hardware attached to their belt isn’t queer at all and just has a propensity for forgetting their work badge.
Perhaps it’s partially because I’m dreaming of adding a Chopova Lowena skirt to my own wardrobe but I’m excited to see carabiners take centre stage and be appreciated as the iconic accessory that they are. I love them not just for aesthetic reasons – I think a carabiner is a tough, edgy accessory that doesn’t carry the same weight and expectation of femininity as a necklace or earrings – but also as a tangible link to queer history. Whenever I clip a chunky silver carabiner onto my belt loop or use a small, screw-fix type to secure an oversized chain around my neck, I feel like I’m attaching myself to a legacy. It’s a link, literally and figuratively, between me and the countless gender-nonconforming individuals who have paved the way; subtle enough to pass unnoticed by the majority but obvious to those who know. Plus, I never lose my keys.