Dress optional

by Eszter Hargittai on March 2, 2006

Women's restroom sign Men's restroom sign Girls Boys Women's restroom sign Men's restroom sign

A propos gender, I wanted to say a few words about some recent photo interests. A few months ago I decided to start taking pictures of gender signs. The most obvious location for these is restroom doors. I haven’t encountered any awkward situations yet running around public bathrooms snapping photos, but I can imagine eventually I may get some curious glances.

The purpose of this exercise is to see what are the core essential elements that the designers of such signs decide will be enough to distinguish between men and women. We are all used to the stick figures, with and without the skirt (or would that be a dress?). But how about the more innovative approaches? In the Hungarian Parliament, the emphasis on the signs seems to be on differences in hairdo while the signs in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences emphasize some facial feature variation (lips vs moustache) in addition to hairdo distinctions and some differences in clothing. (It would be interesting to know the date of these two pairs of signs, I guess I didn’t do adequate research.) In other cases, the focus is on how men vs women tend to go about their business. At times, the distinctions are not completely obvious (these tend to be some of the most intriguing cases).

I have compiled my photos on the topic into a set on Flickr. More interestingly, I also started a public group on Flickr, a pool of pictures to which any other Flickr member can contribute. This has led to some great additions by others, for example: this Ken and Barbie pair at the Shirn museum in Frankfurt.

The rule for the photo pool is simple: post images that have both the male and female symbol (either in one or two pictures) and give some description of where the signs are located in case others want to find them. I welcome contributions! Join the trend, don’t be shy to whip out your camera next time you spot a pair of gender signs.

Eventually, I could see this project leading to.. well, perhaps not a coffee table book, but maybe a bathroom book?

{ 1 trackback }

Outside The Beltway | OTB
03.02.06 at 11:28 am



Jonty 03.02.06 at 8:04 am

I can’t remember what signs they use (and nor do I have pictures to hand, unfortunately) but in the Supper Club in Amsterdam, the bathrooms are divided into “Hetero” and “Homo” instead. Maybe that’s usual elsewhere but was a first for me.


DS 03.02.06 at 8:36 am

Also in Amsterdam, there was a small café a few years ago where one door had a sun, and the other a moon. It was hard to guess what they meant by that and it would lead to long discussions. Friends from different ccountries would feel different about it, on the basis of mythology perhaps (the sun goddess Amaterasu) or the grammatical gender of the words sun and moon (Die Sonne, Le soleil etc.) But in Dutch the distinction between masculine and feminine words has almost disappeared, so we were never really sure. I do remember the sun toilet had more graffiti.


Scott Martens 03.02.06 at 8:40 am

I imagine there must be an outlet (no pun intended) for an empirical study of a basic and pervasive Saussurian binary opposition. The basic semiotics are clear: There is an opposition – a sign for a men’s toilet is inherently bound to one for women. That variation exists in the physical form of the sign has no more bearing on its meaning than variations in pronunciation have on the meaning of words. The signifiant/signifié dichotomy is on full display here, but more interestingly, bathroom signs represent a point somewhere between an icon and a symbol in the Piercean semiotic scheme. They are, after a fashion, iconic prototypes designed to resemble their referents; and yet they vary almost completely arbitrarily. Only through a totally culture-laden scheme of indirect representation can most of these images be seen to, in any way, remsemble their referents. This poses something of problem for referential theories of semiotics. Just what is being represented and how?

Both signs must intrinsically exclude each other entirely, or do they? Perhaps some Derrida could be deployed here after all. Certainly a deconstructionist approach eliminates the difficulty fitting bathroom signs into a Piercean scheme.

A deconstruction of gender signs on bathrooms might start, for example, with one I saw in Chico (in some bar near the university, I forget which, but there must be other ones like it) where the sign on the men’s room said “Women” and had an arrow pointing to the other bathroom, and vice versa. Or that expensive bar in Montreal I was once in with a women’s urinal as its gimmick. (Funky device, it’ll never catch on.) You might furthermore explore bathroom signs in bars favoured by transvestites. To do real justice to a deconstruction you might note how skirts and long hair are associated with women in these signs and find empirical data on skirt purchasing against pants, and the variations in hair length among men and women. It’s easy enough to find a deconstructable asymetry in men and women’s resemblance to the prototypes on bathroom doors. Ultimately, of course, you come to the deconstructionist conclusion we all expected in the first place: social representations of gender are rife with contradiction and hidden reactionary politics. Bathroom signs are merely one of the more pervasive and visible arenas of this game of différance.

Then, you show us a photo of a unisex bathroom sign on the last page.

Call it The Semiotics of the Powder Room.
I say go for it. I’ve seen worse things sell.


Eszter 03.02.06 at 8:44 am

Those are both great examples, thanks! Anyone have pictures to share from either?:) DS – you wouldn’t happen to remember the name/location of this cafe, would you? I would try to get a friend in Amsterdam to go look for it since I have no immediate plans of going there myself.


Alejandro 03.02.06 at 8:46 am

In a chess club in Argentina I saw that the signs in the toilets said “Damas” and “Reyes” (“Queens” and “Kings”), with the conventional symbol for the chess piece below each word. It works as a wordplay in Spanish because “Damas” means also “Ladies” and is the usual sign for the female toilet.


Eszter 03.02.06 at 8:50 am

Scott, thanks for the elaborate treatment of the subject. I would love to see that arrow-sign in Chico, great one! And you’re right that it could be very interesting to see how this is handled in places that mostly cater to transvestites.

To be sure, I’m not expecting to find anything shocking when it comes to mainstream bathroom signs. But I think it’s worth noting and thinking about a bit that this dress/hair length stereotype continues to be maintained despite the fact that there are probably large numbers of people with short hair wearing pants who go through both doors.


almostinfamous 03.02.06 at 8:57 am

as a lifelong english-speaker long used to going in the door marked M for men, i had quite a shock in Mexico where i failed to realize that M in fact stood for mujeres, whereas the men’s room was marked H for hombres. same thing for the taps.

similarly i found out the hard way that c is for caliente, not cold. my poor fingers were not amused.


Bob B 03.02.06 at 9:11 am

I can foresee serious problems downstream if current trends continue unabated.

Around where I live in London, only an ever diminishing minority of woman actually wear skirts. Apart from girls wearing the uniforms of local schools and some female pensioners, almost everyone else wears trousers regardless of age, shape, weight, ethnicity or gender although we somehow seem to manage without too much confusion – for the present.


Brock 03.02.06 at 9:13 am

There’s a tappas bar in Memphis, “Dish,” which has its restroom doors labeled “Xx” and “Xy”.

Needless to say, it’s very easy to forget one’s chromosomal status and walk into the wrong one.

I’ll see if I can get a photo of it.


Jason Kuznicki 03.02.06 at 9:17 am

At Wall Street, my favorite lesbian bar in Columbus Ohio, the toilets were marked “Women” and “Gay Boys.” No icons were used.


ulla 03.02.06 at 9:26 am

I have seen pictures of the moon and the sun displayed on bathroom doors in Mexico. Problem is that while in the Spanish language the moon is female (la luna) and the sun is male (el sol), in German it’s the other way around (der Mond vs. die Sonne). Certainly not a foolproof way of indicating gender.


Seth Gordon 03.02.06 at 9:30 am

Ladies, gentlemen, and small fuzzy creatures from Alpha Centauri, I present the restroom signs from The Science Fiction Museum, in Seattle.


otto 03.02.06 at 9:42 am

IIRC, the House of Lords has bathroom signs for “Lords” and “Women Peers”.


SamChevre 03.02.06 at 9:53 am

In Poland, in many public places, bathrooms were marked with triangles(equilateral triangles, one on its point, one on its base). I always had to look in my guidebook to remember which was which.


KCinDC 03.02.06 at 9:55 am

Almostinfamous, you should try sinks in Montreal, where “C” sometimes stands for “cold” and sometimes for “chaud”.

As as long as we’re contemplating binary associations, what do lightswitch positions (is up on or off?) say about a culture?


sd 03.02.06 at 10:29 am

Oh my God – you’ve hit upon one of my hidden obsessions, and most constant fears! I am convinced – convinced! – that at some point in the near future, as I continue to age but as the bars and eateries in the Chicago neighborhoods that I frequent grow more and more hip, that I will almost certainly one day be unable to tell which room is “for me” and will cause great embarrassment, possibly my own incarceration. Good times!


Scott Martens 03.02.06 at 10:59 am

kcindc (#14) – Now that I’ve actually had to read some of this stuff, I see why deconstruction is so popular: It’s just too damned much fun!

From a purely Saussurian standpoint, up vs. down on light switches tells us nothing about society in general because of the arbitrariness of the sign. It is not the physical realisation of the opposition that entails meaning, merely the place of the opposition within a system of oppositions. If I say the word “male” out loud or if I write the letters M-A-L-E on paper, the physical realisation of the symbol is different but its opposition to “female” remains the same. They don’t mean different things because they take a physical form.

With Derrida, though, you get to play games. They may be silly games, but you still get to play them.

So, what is “up” other than the opposite of “down”? Up takes energy, up is things getting better, up is progress – or at least here in the West. Up is lit, lit is active, lit is vibrant and alive. So, by making light switches turn on by flipping up, we are priviledging the lighted over the dark.

Or are we? In contrast, down is the norm. Things, left to themselves, will fall. “Up”, therefore, is a supplement to “down” and “lit” a supplement to “dark”. By making light switches turn off by flipping them down, we are priviledging dark over light, making the lit a supplement to a norm of dark.

This, of course, is represented through our political discourse. For some, light (signifying freedom, progress, liberty, wealth, knowledge and all that is right) is the supplement to a human condition that is, as per Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. Therefore, the dark is the condition into which we fall when we loose the vital characteristics of the light – energy, knowledge, a willingness to see, think and work – we fall back into the darkness. The common wealth of humanity must be worked for, it must be maintained, or else it is lost.

Other see freedom and knowledge as human norms – priviledging the liberties of a “state of nature”, for example – and the darkness as a supplement, a state which can only exist when humanity is repressed.

Thus, having light switches turn on by being flipped up is a clear statement of leftist and politically activist values over conservative beliefs about purely negative liberties and traditional values.

Of course, deconstruction would show that it’s really never so simple. A light switch is designed to be stable in either the up or down position. Nor is it clear that people have a preference for light, since we prefer to rest in the dark. Lights can also be distracting, their careful placement blocking us from seeing what in the dark we might readily perceive with other senses.

Thus, in reality we live in a world of interplay of light and dark, each serving its function and ultimately dependent on the other for their intertwined existences; and in the same way, our priviledging of progress is dependent on the real substance of regression (think about how little regard the right had for women’s rights until they could use them to argue against Islamic theocracy), our freedoms ultimately built atop the repression of others (the freedom to express yourself on the Internet rests on the illiberal conditions in the Chinese electronics industry), our wealth a by-product of slavery (think about the status of guestworkers in Middle Eastern oil producing nations).

It’s just addictive this stuff. Worse than smoking. :^)


Leo 03.02.06 at 11:04 am

What’s with the, um, not-so-little kid on the far right?


miss representation 03.02.06 at 11:18 am

You should check out Divisible by 2 an installation by John Whiteman. Constructed in Austria, it was a small pavillion with doors marked “male” and “female”. Upon entering either you ended up in a single space. A local opposition group subsequently destroyed it, though it’s not clear (from the text) if the vandalism was a result of the politics of the work itself, or perhaps it was a generalized ‘anti-NEA’ action, or wholly unrelated to the project (if anyone knows, I’d like to hear — I’ve wondered about it for years).

My campus (Antioch, which should be surprising), didn’t have much in the way of interesting graphics, but one building, due to an auditorium, seperated bathrooms by floor, so finding the ‘other’ one was apparently confusion, since ever more elaborate messages and counter messages about how to find the women’s room were written on the men’s room door. But no pics, sorry.

I asked an older student (this was early 90s) about the history of the signs (was there a big to do about bad signage) — her response was that when she got to campus, none of the bathrooms had signifiers. Even at that time, 30% of the dorms were gender unassigned (most of the dorms were constructed with single bathrooms, likely due gender segregation that was mostly gone by the 90’s).


Eszter 03.02.06 at 11:23 am

It can be intriguing to watch how these posts take on a life of their own. Scott, where is the mandatory link (contextual not hypertextual) back to the original post? It shouldn’t be that hard to link light/dark to restrooms, right?:)

KCinDC – This reaction is much less interesting than Scott’s, but here it goes anyway: the most frequently used lights at my place are controlled by two switches in different parts of the condo so up or down has little to do with light or dark/on or off as it turns out. Or maybe I’m missing the important underlying point: it’s a sign of flexibility (hah!) that up and down can both mean either light or dark.


A. 03.02.06 at 11:48 am

Where did I see this? On one door, just a circle–nothing else. On the other, a triangle. It was fascinating because I automatically knew which one to go into. Do the rest of you?


des von bladet 03.02.06 at 11:51 am

Which way up was the circle?


DS 03.02.06 at 11:54 am

Eszter – I don’t remember the name and exact location (Binnen Wieringerstraat?) of the café, haven’t been there for a while, but I’ll be in that neighborhood soon and will let you know.

Scott – Isn’t there a text by Lacan in which he uses restroom doors as an example to explain his views on the saussurian signifier/signified relation?


KCinDC 03.02.06 at 12:00 pm

A., the circle and triangle are in the signs from Seth Gordon’s comment.


soubzriquet 03.02.06 at 12:02 pm

At the `Jane Bond’, in Waterloo, ON, (a great place to have a beer or veggie friendly dinner, by the way) they have non-gendered washrooms labelled `A’ and `B’. Occasionally amusing as someone tries to decide the appropriate one.

I always thought the non-assigned rooms were sensible (they are single user), and the humour matched the place. I assume they are still like that, though I don’t live there anymore (otherwise I’d send you photos).


M. Gordon 03.02.06 at 12:07 pm

Just for completeness, or for shits and giggles, or what have you, go over to Kafeine on Chicago in Evanston, and look at their bathroom signs. It doesn’t quite fit your stated purpose, but, as I recall, they have three. One says “Women!”, the second says “Men!”, and the third says “Men?” The second one is a fake door, it doesn’t open. The third one is the actual men’s room.


Hogan 03.02.06 at 12:14 pm

The White Dog Cafe (on the Penn campus) has four bathrooms marked Democrats, Republicans, Pointers and Setters.

Pointers and setters. That one makes me laugh and laugh.


David 03.02.06 at 12:42 pm

I can verify the signage at the White Dog.

Interesting that no signs indicate who is not supposed to pass through the door (e.g., a men’s room marked by the usual figure in a skirt, which is covered by the circle and diagonal bar of the universal NOT)


Tim 03.02.06 at 1:20 pm

At my (all-boys) high school, there were only a few women’s bathrooms, all of which were signed with the usual beskirted icon and the the legend, “WOMEN.”

We all thought it quite witty when some wag removed the W from one of them.


Fred the Fourth 03.02.06 at 2:44 pm

No one has mentioned the Far Side cartoon of the Jellyfish outhouses (I think it was outhouses, anyway the doors were shown.) The drawings on the doors were apparently identical, and the caption was “Only they can tell the difference”


anon 03.02.06 at 2:45 pm

Ezter — An older woman friend has a large collection of earrings having one male and one female side. Many were bought in galleries or commissioned directly from artists she liked. I wish the photos of her collection were online, but instead she made a book with photos of her collection in them. Perhaps I can persuade her daughter to put some of the photos on her book site.


David 03.02.06 at 2:46 pm

also, it’s too bad that the right title for the bathroom book has been used already — ” A sense of where you are” (John McPhee used it for his book or essay about the Princeton basketballer Bill Bradley)


Slayton I. Mustgo 03.02.06 at 3:41 pm

A friend was visiting Germany and heard a young woman relate: “Well, I figured out that Damen meant ‘The Men’, so Herren must mean ‘Hers'”.

That friend and young woman were in Germany for a Grateful Dead show is surely irrelevant.


John Burgess 03.02.06 at 5:02 pm

In Saudi Arabia, women’s rooms are marked by a head wearing hijab and veil; men’s are marked by a head wearing a red-and-white checked ghutrah. As the general population is color-coded, it works perfectly.


Eric 03.02.06 at 6:11 pm

Here in Texas (houston and dallas) we have a pub called Gingerman’s.

At least in Houston, the female bathroom says “Ginger” and the male bathroom says “Man”

No pictures, just words.


Kenny Easwaran 03.02.06 at 9:32 pm

Eszter – I don’t remember if I mentioned this last time you mentioned the gender door signs, but if you’re in Budapest again taking pictures, the communist pizza place Marxim has pretty entertaining door signs. I believe the one for men is a bolt and the one for women is a nut. It goes with their whole gritty barbed wire decor. (In case that link above doesn’t work, it’s a couple blocks east of Moszkva Tér.)


vivian 03.02.06 at 10:02 pm

New England’s clamhouse Woodman’s has doors marked “Gulls” and “Buoys” with black-and-white painted images. At least they did ten years ago or so. No pics on their website.


Simon 03.02.06 at 11:01 pm

One of my personal favorites is an Italian restaurant in Atlanta, which uses the standard international figures for male and female: the feller in trousers and the woman in a skirt. But it also features the words uomini and donne. The problem, of course, is that the words contradict the symbols, leaving the patron to wonder whether they are best-advised to trust the linguistic or graphic representation of their goal.


Big Ben 03.02.06 at 11:05 pm

There’s all sorts of good ones in the existing flickr toilet sign pool, including pink vs. blue ninjas, and peeing bunny vs. peeing gorilla.


Eszter 03.02.06 at 11:35 pm

These are great examples and recommendations, I’m going to have to look for them when I’m in the various towns. And as I said, if anyone’s inspired to take pictures when they come across an interesting set of signs, don’t be shy and do share!


KCinDC 03.03.06 at 12:10 am

Simon, my theory would be that the proprietors don’t speak Italian and figured “uomini” was somehow an Italian version of “women”, while “donne” was just another spelling of “don”, or something. Wonder if I’d get the right door?


Jef 03.03.06 at 1:01 am

Pike Place Market in Seattle has (or had, it’s been a while) XX and
XY inlaid in the tile in front of the bathroom doors.

It’s good that upi’re finding these symbols in Hungary. Hungary
is the only place I’ve ever been to where I had to wait for someone
to come out of the bathroom so I could assess the gender of the
person and thus know which door to go through. The hungarian
words for Men and Women do not correspond to anything in
any regular language, so it’s impossible to tell from a lettered


Andrew Brown 03.03.06 at 2:19 am

I remember the House of Lords one differently. It doesn’t say “Lords” but I definitely saw — and nipped into — one marked “Peers only” the last time I was there. The problem there was that one felt there should only be urinals.


goatchowder 03.03.06 at 4:34 am

A word is worth a thousand pictures.


Eszter 03.03.06 at 9:50 am

jef – Speak for yourself on what you consider a “regular” language.:) I usually hear this about police cars.. while in most countries (at least in Europe) you can guess the word police, in Hungarian it has different roots. Interestingly, the word makes a lot of sense. Police is “rendõrség”, which you get from putting together “rend” = order and “õrség” = guard.


mj 03.03.06 at 11:07 am

Re: SamChevre

I haven’t come across the two triangles signs, but most commonly in Poland the men’s room is indicated by a triangle, whereas the women’s is located behind the door with a circle.

To remember: Women are rounder and softer than men.


Jeremy Leader 03.03.06 at 4:57 pm

At Caltech, the dorms were all built before the school became co-ed, and so originally had half a dozen large “men’s” rooms, and one small “ladies” room for visitors. After going co-ed, some door signs were painted over, to switch the gender of some restrooms. In other places, an LP record would be nailed to the door, loosely enough that it could be rotated by hand. The record would be divided typically into 4 quadrents, marked “Men”, “Women”, “Empty”, and “Both (please knock)” or something like that. Unfortunately, I don’t have any photos of those signs, and I don’t know if they’re still in use (I was there in the early 80s).


nick s 03.04.06 at 8:51 am

Scott – Isn’t there a text by Lacan in which he uses restroom doors as an example to explain his views on the saussurian signifier/signified relation?

I’m not Scott, but you’re right. It’s in ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious’:

“A train arrives at a station. A little boy and a little girl, brother and sister, are seated in a compartment face to face next to the window through which the buildings along the station platform can be seen passing as the train pulls to a stop. ‘Look,’ says the brother, ‘We’re at Ladies!’ ‘Idiot!’ replies his sister, ‘Can’t you see we’re at Gentlemen.'”

(The passage that follows, ‘explaining’ how the sexes enter the symbolic order through separate doors, does severely take the piss.)


Anton Sherwood 03.06.06 at 4:21 pm

Mom once told me about a nun who was working in an otherwise all-male lab: to use the only restroom, she’d put a bow on the door.


Mark 03.07.06 at 4:05 am

Don’t forget the famous bathrooms at the Saturn Cafe in Santa Cruz.

Comments on this entry are closed.