“What does a lesbian look like?” feels like an age-old question – or, to be more realistic, a decades-old question. With Dressing Dykes, I hope that I answer it at least regarding specific individuals, or lesbian styles at particular times and places throughout history. However, lesbianism exists in the heart, the mind and the body rather than in the wardrobe. Clothes are an extension of the lesbian self, a conscious display (or, perhaps, a conscious veil). Because of this, the true question is not “what does a lesbian look like?” but “what clothing is a lesbian signal?”
Often, this comes down to items that have a wide-spread cultural meaning… in other words, lesbian stereotypes. Stereotypical lesbian fashions, like sensible footwear, are based in more truth than many other stereotypes in popular culture, since lesbians (and other queer people) have historically desired to reach out to other members of their community. When this cannot be done with familial, pre-established bonds, in the way that communities may be forged in other marginalised groups, other methods are necessary. To utilise a lesbian fashion stereotype is to signal, and to flash a lesbian light into the dark. Sometimes, it is a risk for this light to be too bright. Signals need to balance between visibility and subtlety. For this reason, so many lesbian signals and lesbian fashion stereotypes are accessories. Some of the most prominent of these, and the ones that this post will be focusing on, are carabiners and rings of various kinds, from the thumb to the pinky.
Fig. 1: Photograph of a carabiner by Eliza Jouin. Via Natalia Joseph, ‘4 Carabiners to Let That Guy in Your Econ Lecture Know You’re Not Interested,’ Under the Button, 2nd Dec. 2018. underthebutton.com
The carabiner seems like a relatively recent lesbian item or stereotype, but its history goes back further than you might think. Christina Cauterucci, in a piece for Slate, argues that “The beltside key ring is one of the most enduring sartorial symbols of lesbian culture, one of the few stereotypes of our kind that’s both inoffensive and true.”1 Her article traces a lineage of beltside key rings – so often in the form of carabiners – from mid-20th century butch women in blue-collar jobs, who wore them for reasons of practicality, to kink culture and cruising. She also writes that “the semiotics of the carabiner have been largely divorced from sex for today’s lesbian, but key clips are still reliable identity flagging implements.”2
Their status as “reliable identity flagging implements” has been acknowledged across the internet; in 2018, Natalia Joseph wrote an article called ‘4 Carabiners to Let That Guy in your Econ Lecture Know You’re Not Interested,’ in which she wrote that “the only women who wear [carabiners] are either rock climbers or massive lesbians.”3 5 years earlier, in 2013, blog Her Gay Agenda declared carabiners as “The Lesbian Latch.”4 In 2016, however, Krista Burton bemoaned the loss of the carabiner’s lesbian significance in The New York Times, writing that “since you all wear carabiners as key chains, we lesbians no longer have any private signals to each other.”5
It’s true that lesbian symbols have a knack for losing their specificity, becoming mere trends for mainstream fashion to grab and own. This doesn’t mean, however, that lesbian clothing signals are never received. Jane Hattrick, in her 2016 article ‘Using ‘dress appearance […] to define who I am to others’: Everyday fashion and subjectivity among white lesbians in Brighton 2005-2015’ considered this, saying that “despite the diffusion of lesbian style into the mainstream since the 1970s, lesbians maintain the ability to maintain appearance codes.”6 To increase this recognisability, though, sometimes lesbians wear these symbols in a more exaggerated manner in order to still be read as lesbian. I wrote about this in my post ‘Assertion: Sensible Footwear is Lesbian Camp’, arguing that to consciously wear a stereotypical item of lesbian clothing “is to perform the image of “The Lesbian” to those in the know, whether the audience is queer or heterosexual.”7 When it comes to carabiners, nowhere is this conscious, camp lesbian claiming of the symbol more clear than in the Lez Bag.
Fig. 2: Lezbag. Lezbag (electric blue cord), A5 classic pouch / eco-friendly (made from 95% recycled materials), black zip, dual carabiners, electric blue clasps and bungee. Lezbag.bigcartel.com
The Lez Bag (pictured above) uses the “simple butch iconography of the carabiner clasps” to create “a functional bag for all genders and none.”8 Its audience is “queer fags,” though it acknowledges the lesbian iconography of the carabiner not just in its description, but in the name “lezbag” itself. The stereotype of the carabiner, here, takes on a new form, queer in a way that has not been co-opted, lez in a way that acknowledges the practical-yet-stylish butch roots of the carabiner.
Lesbian accessories with wide-spread cultural recognition like the carabiner seem to be particularly (though not exclusively) appreciated by newly-out lesbians. These are people who are trying to assert themselves as lesbian, both to themselves and to others in their community. Signals of identity are more important when someone is not already part of an established community or group, as they can help secure entry into a group or community space. In other words, if someone “looks like a lesbian” (or as I argued earlier, is wearing clothing that signals their lesbianism), then they may feel more comfortable entering a lesbian space, or approaching other lesbians. This is still true today, but would have held even more relevance in, say, mid-20th century lesbian bars, when if a lesbian knew no-one on the inside the only markers of her reliability would have been in the clothes she wore.9 In the years in between, multiple studies have examined this.
A 2002 article by Ilana D. Krakauer and Suzanna M. Rose, ‘The Impact of Group Membership on Lesbians’ Personal Appearance,’ found that “Many lesbians report taking cues from other lesbians when they first come out.”10 The authors then expanded on the idea of signals and lesbian cues, arguing that “By presenting herself in a manner that is subtle to the general public but recognisable to lesbians, a lesbian may increase her chances of finding other lesbians in repressed or hostile environments.”11 Another example of this idea is present in a 2007 study on lesbian, gay and bisexual appearance by Victoria Clarke and Kevin Turner. Within it, they found that “participants chose to look gayer when they first came out to affirm and to display to others that they were comfortable with their identity.”12
Fig. 3: Keisha and Lia by Joyce Culver, 1995.
So, stereotypical lesbian signals like the carabiner are and have been used in order to “look gayer”. The carabiner is not alone in its position as a subtle signal, though: next, I want to discuss thumb rings. In Daisy Jones’ recent article for Vice, she called thumb rings “a subtle yet ubiquitous symbol for queer women,” describing how, “As a piece of jewellery, it sits neither at the traditionally “feminine” nor “masculine” end of the spectrum. It is casual yet delicate. Vaguely practical, and faintly erotic.”13 Thumb rings crop up time and time again in pictures of queer women and lesbians, from Keisha and Lia, a couple photographed in 1995 (above) to images of famous queer icons like Kristen Stewart, below. There’s also, I’ve been informed, a new trend on TikTok where queer women and non-binary people have begun wearing white thumb rings as a signal of their identity. Thumb rings clearly have a far-reaching queer appeal.
Fig. 4: Kristen Stewart wearing a thumb ring, c. 2011 (yes, before she came out. Perhaps it was a subtle signal?)
Despite this, there is little to no research on the significance of thumb rings in lesbian culture, and it seems as if other types of rings have been more prominent as lesbian signals historically. One in particular is the pinky ring. In dress historian Katrina Rolley’s fantastic research on British lesbian fashion from 1918-1939, two of the lesbians she interviewed, Bee and Eleanor, said “that pinky rings were a specific lesbian symbol, and both were wearing them when interviewed.”14 These two lesbians, without any relation to each other, had been wearing pinky rings as a lesbian symbol for decades. Yet, even this was not universal. Another of Rolley’s interviewees, Ceri, said of symbols that “there was nothing. Nothing for lesbians. Not till well after the war.”15 It must be noted, however, that Ceri came from an upper-class background, whereas Bee and Eleanor did not. Clearly, what constitutes a lesbian signal is dependent on factors like the class and the place of each lesbian or lesbian community.
Something that would often be a signal for lesbian possibility was a lack of any rings at all – in other words, the sign that a woman was unmarried. Still, marriage did not negate lesbianism, or even the possibility for a lesbian relationship to develop, and many if not most lesbians in the grand scheme of history have had to marry a man for one reason or another. Alternatively, a wedding-type band may have symbolised a lesbian union, if covertly. One example is Anne Lister and Ann Walker, who symbolically married with an exchange of rings on the 27th February 1834. Lister wrote in her diary that the rings were a “token of our union – which is now understood to be confirmed for ever tho’ little or nothing was said.”16
Rings, on one finger or another, being lesbian signals brings me to an article I read recently (though it was published in 2008) in the Journal of Lesbian Studies called ‘Freaky Hands: A Phenomenological Reflection on Lesbian Hands.’ It included the following quote:
Dyke hands are skillful in a multitude of ways, and hands are an important signifier of lesbian erotic power. To say this is not to fetishize them, for to conceive of hands as “the lesbian phallus” as some queer theorists have done, is to cuff our hands in patriarchal understanding. Hands are also a symbol of independence that should be celebrated. Hands hold our power, our independence, our talent, our strength, and most importantly, each other.17
It makes sense, with these thoughts in mind, that accessories signalling lesbian identity live so often on the hands. To find them, the gaze has to be drawn to the fingers, which become a type of lesbian signal in turn. The metal of a ring glistens and attracts – just as a carabiner might, though its shine is one of practicality rather than adornment. A glistening ring, whether thumb, pinky, wedding, or key ring reflects, but not just the light. It reflects a lesbian possibility.
1: Christina Cauterucci, ‘Lesbians and Key Rings: a Cultural Love Story,’ Slate, 21st Dec. 2016. slate.com
2: Cauterucci, ‘Lesbians and Key Rings: a Cultural Love Story.’
3: Natalia Joseph, ‘4 Carabiners to Let That Guy in Your Econ Lecture Know You’re Not Interested,’ Under the Button, 2nd Dec. 2018. underthebutton.com
4: Her Gay Agenda, ‘Lesbian Stereotypes 101: The Lesbian Latch,’ 29th Jan 2013, hergayagenda.wordpress.com
5: Krista Burton, ‘Lesbians Invented Hipsters,’ The New York Times, 31st Dec. 2016. nytimes.com
6: Jane Hattrick, ‘Using ‘dress appearance […] to define who I am to others’: Everyday fashion and subjectivity among white lesbians in Brighton 2005-2015,’ Fashion, Style & Popular Culture 3.2 (2016): 183.
7: Eleanor Medhurst, ‘Assertion: Sensible Footwear is Lesbian Camp,’ Dressing Dykes, 2nd Oct. 2020.
8: sleazy d, ‘About,’ Lezbag [n.d.]. Lezbag.bigcartel.com
9: I say “she” here for the context of the mid 20th century, but my general choice of pronoun for an unspecified lesbian person is “they”.
10: Ilana D. Krakauer and Suzanna M. Rose, ‘The Impact of Group Membership on Lesbians’ Physical Appearance,’ Journal of Lesbian Studies, 6.1 (2002): 32.
11: Krakauer and Rose, ‘The Impact of Group Membership on Lesbians’ Physical Appearance,’ 33.
12: Victoria Clarke and Kevin Turner, ‘V. Clothes Maketh the Queer? Dress, Appearance and the Construction of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Identities,’ Feminism & Psychology 17. 2 (2007): 273.
13: Daisy Jones, ‘How the Thumb Ring Became So Gay,’ Vice, 15th July 2020. Vice.com
14: Katrina Rolley, ‘The lesbian dandy: the role of dress and appearance in the construction of lesbian identities, Britain 1918-1939,’ Master’s thesis, Middlesex University, 1995. 179.
15: Rolley, ‘‘The lesbian dandy: the role of dress and appearance in the construction of lesbian identities, Britain 1918-1939,’ 180.
16: Anne Lister, 12th Feb. 1834, in Jill Liddington, Female Fortune: Land, Gender and Authority, (London: Rivers Oram Press,  2019) 95.
17: Wednesday, ‘Freaky Hands: A Phenomenological Reflection on Lesbian Hands,’ Journal of Lesbian Studies 12. 4 (2008): 402.