Strangely enough, this isn’t the first time I’ve covered flags and swimwear. It’s not even the second time. Judging from the tallies of the two topics, the count on flags vastly exceeds those of swimwear. I do love me some flags. As an (extremely) amateur vexillologist, I enjoy not just their origins in heraldry but the way flags have a subtle, simple anatomy worthy of dissection, ascribing semiotic significance to all their components. No flag has a single meaning. Hoist it in certain locations, or within particular milieux, or drape/unfurl it in a certain pattern, and voila—the flag is implying something completely different than it might have been five minutes ago. That’s because, unless flags consist exclusively of text with a unique, unreplicatable literal meaning, they are fundamentally denotative. All the flag elements —the cantons, cockades, fields, and fimbriations—only connote; they do not achieve a one-for-one denotation. (Frankly, if a flag is exclusively text and has a single discrete meaning, it’s basically a flappy, windborne sign.)
But it’s the component parts that can make all the difference in the world. And, in this intersection of vexillology and aquatic attire, is there a better example of “they just didn’t think the idea all the way through”? Check this out, at the entrance to a sporting goods store that will remain unnamed:
Not being an expert on the subject, I think we’re looking at a single patterns for men’s briefs and jammers, both competition-friendly gear for diving and racing, respectively. But it’s not the cut of the suit that matters here; it’s the pattern. The deployment of the flag elements.
Given the time of year, I’d imagine this is a patriotic theme for pool time on Independence Day, though I question how many people wear Speedo-style briefs or jammers for a barbecue with sparklers and snap ’n pops. But that’s not the problem. It’s got all the right flag elements one associates with Old Glory: the white stars up against blue as we see in our flag’s upper left canton, the red and white stripes that comprise the field. But doesn’t the position suggest another flag from American history? Look at the blue with white stars. The stars are lined up in a row, rather than splayed out in a series of alternate rows. Then the edges of the blue stripe constrain the stars. A viewer could infer that the stripes would, in a conventional flag, appear in a saltire pattern. And if you don’t know what a saltire is, take a look at the flag of Scotland:
Now imagine the white saltire filled instead with deep blue, then bedecked with white stars. Does it suggest anything? Replace the pale blue background with red, all while maintaining the fimbriation, that thin band of white that separates the deep blue from the red.
Dare I say it? Yes, the pattern on these swimsuits harnesses the ambiguity of flag elements, capitalizing on the similarities between the American flag and the elongated Confederate battle flag. In fact, I’d wager that the positioning of these key flag elements actually comes closer to resembling Confederate than American/Union. The fimbriation and the absence of a alternating red-white stripes make it fundamentally a variant on the flag of Old Dixie. Now, the classical liberal in me doesn’t object to this, even if I deeply disapprove of the meaning that many of those who harness the Confederate flag intend for it to convey. I recognize few flags offer a single connotation. But it’s equally fascinating how the ambiguity can work in both directions: both from output (the variety of implications from the display of a flag, controversial or not) and input (the juxtaposition of different flag elements may or may not adequately evoke the wholistic unfurled flag, from its entire hoist and its fly).
I’m not going to cast judgment on the sporting goods store that promoted this swimsuit as soon as I walked in. Nor would I impugn the manufacturer of the swimsuit. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if it simply didn’t occur to the proprietor because the positioning of the flag elements is cleverly ambiguous. Even the manufacturer/designer might have been oblivious, though this seems a bit less likely. But I’d be extremely surprised if the owners sympathized with the most insidious sentiments suggested by the Confederate battle flag. And, unless a customer points it out, it’s likely to remain draped on the display rod. Or unless somewhat purchases it, to which we might ask the same question: does he see the double-entendre?