What’s the Deal with American Flag Fashion?

Every year, right around this time, we find ourselves asking the same question: Why are we Americans so enamored, maybe even obsessed, with American flag clothing?

At this point you’ve probably seen a good number of people walking around with American flag T-shirts, shorts, and bathing suits. But you can also buy flag overalls, stilettos, and cowboy hats featuring the stars and stripes. (Maybe don’t wear all three at the same time.)

This fascination with all things red, white, and blue is of course most pronounced in the month between Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) and the Fourth of July, but if you pay attention you can observe it all year round. The flag is just a symbol made physical with fabric, yet it manages to both inspire and divide, particularly when it comes to clothing.

“There is something off-kilter about revering the ideals that our flag embodies…[then] sitting down in a flag-patterned lawn chair, tucking into red-white-and-blue-frosted cupcakes and dabbing our mouths with a Stars and Stripes napkin.”

This year, tired of wondering why anyone would wear a flag like a cape, we decided to take a look at the history of flag clothing and the social and political implications that come along with it, including the tug-of-war between patriotism and nationalism.

Marc Leepson, the author of Flag: An American Biography, summed up our motivations when he observed that “there is something off-kilter about revering the ideals that our flag embodies, attempting to ban its destruction, then using it as a political club or sitting down in a flag-patterned lawn chair, tucking into red-white-and-blue-frosted cupcakes and dabbing our mouths with a Stars and Stripes napkin.”

A brief history of flag clothing

Rocking flag gear like shorts, swimsuits, and sunglasses is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s also one that’s woven into U.S. politics and business.

When the first versions of the flag were flown in the late eighteenth century, it was mostly for military purposes, reported Julissa Treviño in her brief history of American flag attire for Racked. And it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it became a more common item. By the late 1800s, new printing technology brought a wave of patriotic advertisements and goods for sale. The flag began taking center stage at political rallies and appearing on items like beer bottles and soup cans. But it was not until the 1950s that it became popular to wear the flag (with the exception of on the Fourth of July), likely due to U.S. involvement in Korea and Vietnam, which people supported and protested by donning the stars and stripes.

More recently, designers like Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have frequently made use of the flag to inspire their clothing lines, and Old Navy has made its annual Fourth of July flag shirt a summer staple. Following 9/11 a number of celebrities, including Madonna, wore the flag as a sign of support and solidarity. Today, apparel websites like Shinesty have devoted entire sections to flag-inspired clothing.

“From ski suits in the winter to swimsuits in the summer, we have a cataclysmic sensory overload of everything kick-ass and awesome about American Flag Clothing,” the website screams. “We’re talking fireworks going off during the middle of a Freebird solo with flocks of bald eagles mating as you eat a funnel cake covered in maple bacon by the handful.”

“From ski suits in the winter to swimsuits in the summer, we have a cataclysmic sensory overload of everything kick-ass and awesome about American Flag Clothing,” screams one apparel website.

It’s not just Americans who have a penchant for the red, white, and blue. When the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba warmed in the mid-2010s, clothing inspired by the U.S. flag began appearing throughout the island country.

However, not all flag apparel is viewed with the same enthusiasm. Abbie Hoffman, a political and social activist, was arrested in 1968 for wearing an American flag shirt as part of a protest. According to Treviño in Racked, Hoffman is believed to be the first and only person arrested for wearing the flag and charged with defamation of the flag. In 2015 A$AP Rocky designed a T-shirt for PacSun that featured an upside-down flag. The shirt was quickly pulled from shelves due to an overwhelming negative response from the public and military, who criticized PacSun for promoting the shirt during Memorial Day Weekend.

Just this week, Nike decided not to release a special Independence Day version of their Air Max 1 shoe, after Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback turned activist, urged them to do so. The white shoe, with red and blue trim, featured the Betsy Ross flag on the heel. The flag was flown around the time of the American Revolution, a point of pride and a symbol of freedom for some. However, slavery was still very much in practice. One commenter observed, “I wasn’t free yet.” The Betsy Ross flag has also been recently co-opted by at least one white supremacist group, possibly because it represents a time in America before slavery was abolished.

Nike, via SneakerNews

The United States may be unique in their exuberance when it comes to the flag, but they are certainly not alone in celebrating their nation and even commercializing that love. As Michael Billig, social psychologist and author of Banal Nationalism, told us, “Practically every country or nation state is associated with strange customs. For instance, I live in Britain and the flag isn’t the focus of the strangeness and the reverence, the royal family is. And to treat, in the modern age, a particular family as having almost mystical royal powers is just as bizarre.” Instead of having the flag on everything, the British have everything from T-shirts and mugs to poker chips and coloring books to celebrate every wedding and birth in the royal family.

But what about the Flag Code?

It should be noted that, technically, all this flag fashion is out of step with the Flag Code. According to the code, which was established by various organizations and adopted by Congress in the 1940s to preserve the dignity and respect for what the flag represents, “The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.” (You shouldn’t hug the flag either.) Essentially, the code says that the flag shouldn’t be used on anything that would be thrown away. “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing,” the code reads.

But if you’re one of the people who break out their star-spangled swimsuit each July, don’t panic. The code is only a set of guidelines, and breaking them won’t land you in jail. In fact, in 1990 the Supreme Court struck down the Flag Protection Act of 1989, saying that desecrating the flag is an act of free speech and is therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Given his line of work, John Hartvigsen, a vexillologist (someone who studies flags) and former president of the North American Vexillological Association, has received more than a few calls from people upset that a store such as Old Navy is selling American flag shirts, or that a car dealership is flying their company flag under the American flag. To these people he says, cut them some slack. It’s not about following every single rule, it’s about a person’s intentions, and Hartvigsen believes that in 98 percent of cases when people wear or display the flag it is to honor it.

He also adds, “If you really want to honor the flag, the way you honor it is how you live as a citizen. You can follow all the rules in the world and dishonor the flag through your actions.” For instance, in the 1920s the Ku Klux Klan carried the American Flag almost continually, and prior to World War II the American Nazi Party would often display the flag. Neither of these groups were violating the flag code, but they also weren’t using the flag to represent the morals and values so many people in this country believe the flag stands for.

A cute, but clear violation of the Flag Code. Source: Martin Castro/Unsplash

The malleability of the meaning

The history of flag clothing, from its fashionistas to its opponents, shows just how different perceptions of fashion and patriotism can be. Research shows that the clothing we wear is deeply tied to our identity, belonging, self-presentation, mood, and values. So it’s no wonder that the flag, and all that it could symbolize, has become a staple of the fashion industry and many people’s wardrobes.

On this note, Markus Kemmelmeier, a social psychologist at the University of Nevada, believes that the reason so many people wear and display the American Flag is because the “flag is a relatively amorphous symbol that designates a collective but allows the person wearing the flag to essentially fill in the details.” He adds, “It’s a symbol that by its presence tries to enforce a certain sense of what it means to be American.” According to Kemmelmeier, for most people it means strength, independence, freedom, and general themes of individualism, but ultimately can mean whatever they want.

Dannagal Young, an associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming book Irony and Outrage, feels that our youth as a nation plays an important part in our need to unite around a common symbol. She believes that while countries in Europe are currently trying to regain their individual national identities, Americans need a way to identify themselves as a single nation despite having a history of immigration.

“The flag is a relatively amorphous symbol that designates a collective but allows the person wearing the flag to essentially fill in the details.”

She has also observed that people who identify as conservative are more likely to display or wear the American flag than those who identify as liberals. It’s not a matter of less patriotism, she said, but rather a matter of how liberals and conservatives choose to express themselves.

In fact, Young, who identifies as a progressive, told us that right before our call she almost bought an American flag sundress. When we asked her why, she told us, “I feel like it’s important to remind people that people on the left can still be proud of their national identity … I may not always be proud of American history but I’m proud of my identity, and I think that’s an important thing for many, especially on the left, to remember.”

The idea of representing one’s national pride is not limited to the physical world either. In a telling anecdote of how the politics of the flag is currently evolving, Young said she also likes to include a flag in her Twitter handle. “I don’t think that it makes sense for [the flag] to be defined as something that belongs to one party or one side, so I put it in my handle,” she told us. “What’s interesting is that I do think that that serves as a signaling cue to some people … She has the flag on her handle, so she’s a Republican. It’s interesting to see how people respond to what is actually just our nation’s flag.”

Patriotism or nationalism?

But it’s not just our perceptions of what displaying or wearing the flag means. It’s also the meanings we imbue in the flag. In her article “Patriotism or Nationalism? Understanding Post‐September 11, 2001, Flag‐Display Behavior,” Linda Skitka, a psychologist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, explains that patriotism is based on an affective attachment to one’s in-group and has no relation to feelings about those outside of the group or the leader of the group. Meanwhile, nationalism is directly associated with an “us vs. them” attitude. Skitka also suggests that displaying the flag, particularly after events like 9/11, can be a result of both nationalism and patriotism, depending on whether the event produces feelings of affinity or threat.

“Flag-display behavior may have been a consequence of patriotism without nationalism for those less threatened by the terrorist attacks. However, among those who were more threatened by the terrorist attacks, flag-display behavior may have reflected more nationalism, or a complex blend of nationalism and patriotism,” she writes. For the most part, though, she found that people were driven by patriotism. They wanted to show support for their fellow Americans. According to national surveys, somewhere between 74 percent and 82 percent of Americans displayed flags in some form following the attacks.

Unsurprisingly, the number of flags decreased in the next few years after 9/11. Skitka speculates that this decrease in flags was not only a result of lack of recency but also that displaying the flag actually shifted to carry a more nationalistic meaning, and represented support for the Iraq war, something that fewer people were comfortable with.

Even now, we can observe the politically charged rhetoric as a result of flag apparel, blurring the lines between patriotism and nationalism. In response to Nike pulling the Betsy Ross shoe, Texas Senator Ted Cruz tweeted, “It’s a good thing Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag.”

“It’s a good thing Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag.”

One Georgia-based shirt company decided to produce its own Betsy Ross flag T-shirt, stating that “the Betsy Ross flag has a direct correlation with this national patriotic holiday but Kaepernick and Nike don’t care. They are a disgrace to all freedom-loving Americans, choosing ignorance over patriotism.”

For its Fourth of July shirt this year, Old Navy took a more inclusive tone. Notably the shirts are purple this year. “Purple is what happens when you bring red, white & blue together,” they stated on Facebook, along with a picture of their store in Times Square. “We’re bringing the purple message of unity & belonging right into the crossroads of the world!”

A decade ago, Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography, summed up the conflict caused by the malleability of the flag’s meaning, apparent in today’s debates of what counts as patriotism. “Political discourse on what it means to love one’s country takes place on stages nearly blindingly laden with large flags,” he wrote in The Washington Post. “The debate about patriotism isn’t about the flag—except that it is.”