V&A Dundee

The Language of Pride

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pride Month, our LGBTQ+ Working Group explore the emergence of symbolic identity as a design language for the community

Written by: Our LGBTQ+ Working Group

Read more about our LGBT Working Group

Pride is always something to shout about. Picnics, parades and festivals will take place throughout June and over the summer months, a colour explosion of progressive pride flags and fashion marking the occasion. This year however there’s an extra reason to celebrate, with 2022 marking fifty years since the first UK Pride march in London in 1972. An outward and public celebration of LGBTQ+ rights, Pride is about being visible, celebrating and reflecting on the achievements and challenges faced by the community over the years.

This public display of identity and love is now an annual event in the summer calendar, but such overt visibility hasn’t always been possible, or legal, or safe. At a time when public opinion towards the community was overwhelmingly hostile and the legal system declared their love as criminal behaviour, many LGBTQ+ people hid their identity in plain sight through symbolism and coding. A grassroots set of ‘secret symbols’ was developed, subtle enough to go relatively unnoticed by those who would seek to cause harm but instantly recognised within the community. A design language created by and for LGBTQ+ people, evolving over time to reflect changing fashions and trends, but always present in one form or another.

Floral Attraction

Oscar Wilde popularised the Parisian trend of wearing a green carnation as a symbol of gay identity when he asked friends to wear them on their lapels to his play Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.

Worn on the left lapel, the green malmaison carnation became a ‘code’ for men who were attracted to other men. The scandalous 1894 novel ‘The Green Carnation’ (whose main characters were loosely based on Wilde and his friends and arguably played a part in Wilde’s arrest and trial) detailed it’s meaning, while Noel Coward included a song of the same name in his operetta Bitter Sweet, a sly reference to the gay lifestyle. The Victorian love of floriography didn’t stop there, with other flowers holding ‘hidden meanings’. Pansies and Lavender were popular amongst the LGBTQ+ community and the words themselves would come to be used in reference the LGBTQ+ people over the years.

Sapphic Violets too were significant having long been associated with Sappho, the Greek poet from the Island of Lesbos who confessed her love for women and with whom the word ‘lesbian’ originates. The language of flowers played a significant role in early LGBTQ+ symbolism and coding, but as time moved on the wearing of a flower became less common. As a subversive symbol of LGBTQ+ identity, to continue wearing them would have had the opposite effect and drawn unnecessary attention, and so this grassroots expression of identity evolved.

‘Is He Theatrical…?’

Code words and phrases also fed into this design language and members of the LGBTQ+ community could find themselves dropping phrases into public conversation to see who recognised them or responded. ‘A friend of Dorothy’, a slang term for a gay man, dates back to World War II while young men in the 1930’s might be asked if they ‘share a flat’. Polari, an entire language built on a wide array of influences, grew in the early 20th century where it was being used by gay men working in London’s theatre district.

Ring of Love

As fashion and styles changed so did the ways in which this symbolism was expressed, but the day- to-day importance of codes in the underground LGBTQ+ communities remained just as prevalent.

A close up image of a gold signet ring.
Jamie's signet ring

For gay men in the 1950’s and 60’s, a way of signaling to others was through the wearing of a signet ring on the pinkie finger. During our recent LGBTQ+ workshop with OurStoryScotland, the lasting significance of the pinkie ring symbolism was explained beautifully by Jaime, a participant who still has their ring to this day.

‘In the 1960s pinkie rings signified you were gay. In the 1980s I wore a ring depicting a buckle, suggesting our love was fastened by choice, not law. In the 2020s my lover and I have no need for rings: our half century together says it all.

Jamie Valentine, Our Story Scotland

In lesbian culture, it wasn’t a pinkie ring but rather one on the thumb that was a symbol to others – a practice that’s once again increasing in its popularity through TikTok, or the wearing of keyrings (most commonly carabiners) on the belt.

The ’Gay Ear’

Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s the LGBTQ+ community became more visible in society and so did the symbols. Wearing an earring in the right ear was a clear sign to both the LGBTQ+ community and those outwith it that you were gay, going as far as the right ear becoming known culturally as ‘the gay ear’. The pink triangle, historically used by Nazi Germany to label homosexuals being sent to concentration camps, was reclaimed in the 80’s and started to appear as a proud symbol of LGBTQ+ identity in the US and parts of Europe. Pin badges showing the pink triangle or the purple lambda symbol (officially recognised at the International Gay Rights Congress in Edinburgh in 1974 as the symbol for Gay Liberation) could be found on jacket lapels, bags and caps. LGBTQ+ underground culture was also furthered in this period by the handkerchief code, or ‘flagging’. Another example of symbolic interaction, flagging involved a set of ‘rules’ based around a bandana worn in the back trouser pocket. The colour, position and pattern of the bandana acted as an unspoken declaration of sexual interest and role, particularly amongst gay men (although a lesbian version existed too) and those who undertook the practice of cruising.

Flying the Flag

Today the most recognisable symbol worldwide for members of the LGBTQ+ community is the Pride flag. The original flag, designed by Gay Rights activist Gilbert Baker in 1978 for San Francisco Pride, had eight stripes of colour and was based on elements of the American flag and the rainbow, as well as bringing in a reference to the pop-art movement.

Progress Pride Flag by Daniel Quasar ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

This flag came to represent the community throughout the eighties, nineties and early noughties, appearing on bracelets, earrings, t-shirts, watches and caps, as well as a whole range of different ephemera. Bars, restaurants and hotels could display the symbol as a sign to visitors that they were welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, travelers could recognise it regardless of language, and people wore it to express their identity or support for the community.

Rainbow Rebranded

Symbolism has always played a part in ensuring LGBTQ+ people were kept safe, recognised by each other and cared for, but what if those safe symbols were to be mistaken in a different context. In 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a campaign started in Italy and spread throughout much of the world which saw the rainbow used as an image of thanks and appreciation to healthcare workers. Worldwide the rainbow had a revival outwith the LGBTQ+ community, appearing on clothes, in hotels and bars, outside shops, community spaces, churches and places of worship. This use of the rainbow, noble for its recognition of those doing so much during the pandemic, presented a real problem in some parts of the LGBTQ+ community. Until then, the rainbow image had predominately represented LGBTQ+ acceptance and was known worldwide as a symbol of a safe and welcoming space for the community. Now however, with so many different places displaying it for other reasons, the certainty of safe LGBTQ+ spaces no longer existed. Would a lesbian couple be accepted and safe checking into a hotel displaying a rainbow, or did it mean something else? Could a member of the trans community safely go into a club displaying the rainbow symbol, or would they be entering a less-tolerant and accepting space?

Making Progress

As with all symbols evolution has been the key to their success, and the same is true of the rainbow flag. In the wake of the increased usage of the rainbow during the pandemic the Progress Pride flag, a 2017 redesign of Baker’s original rainbow to recognise people of colour, the trans community and those living with HIV/AIDS, has become more popular. This current flag appears on company logos, pin badges and at pride marches across the world as symbols continue to be a key component of LGBTQ+ codes, language and identity. So what of the future – how might this LGBTQ+ design language continue to evolve now that the ‘secret’ element isn’t perhaps as necessary as it once was? Pride in the community has always been the key, and will surely remain so, but it will be up to younger LGBTQ+ people to decide how they wish to represent themselves moving forward and ensure we continue to have something to shout about.

Find out more about our LGBT Working Group, Queering our Scottish Design Galleries and LGBTQIA+ Stories here

Header Image Credit: ©Bishopsgate Institute. Picture from London’s First Pride March, 1972. Photographer Unknown.