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?
17 thoughts on “Flag elements meet fashion: a swimsuit that suggests pernicious patriotism?”
If you’re a flag guy, I’m sure you’ve listened to the 99% Invisible episode on Vexillology. But in case you haven’t it’s a good one: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/vexillonaire/
Thanks for that article, Alex. And the revised flag of Portland (without the seal) is pretty respectable. It actually bears a passing resemblance to my home city’s flag, which is one of the best city flags in my opinion (and in many people’s opinions): https://www.flagcenter.com/city-of-indianapolis-flag/
Beyond that, I wasn’t familiar with that podcast, but if you want a good sense of just how bad most flags in the US are (cities AND states), this TED Talk does a pretty good job. https://www.flagcenter.com/city-of-indianapolis-flag/ I searched “Ted talk Vexillology” and, to my surprise, several results came up. It’s a more popular subject that people might think.
99 PI is a great podcast and Roman Mars is a great story teller. They touch on many topics related to design of places. If you are a kit house of the early 1900s fan, they have a good one on that: https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-house-that-came-in-the-mail/
I know very little about this subject except having seen a vintage ad once. I’ll have to check it out….thanks, Alex.
In many countries, clothing and decorations with flag motifs like this are illegal and certainly not considered patriotic. Finland for example:
Thanks for the share. After reading this reference, it appears this is less about trying to limit the means of communicating patriotism and more about showing proper respect of the flag by setting parameters on how to display it, which makes for an interesting alternate take–a different means to a similar end.
yes, I didn’t mean it as a rebuttal to your article. I simply was saying there are “free” countries where their national symbols (flags) are tightly controlled and that is part of their “patriotism “. This came from me because of my encounter years ago with a Finnish friend who was shocked when he saw a stylized American flag with text that I had hanging on my house. He said (with his deep strong accent) “This is illegal in my homeland.”
No worries! I definitely didn’t see it as a rebuttal, and it would entirely be your right to challenge my claims anyway. I am fundamentally neutral on American flag briefs, boxers, brassieres, or even toilet paper. But I can certainly see the argument that this tolerance for reinterpretation may stray towards desecration semantically. Take the Black Crowes “Amorica” album.
But, for my money’s worth, the most blatant example of national flag mockery comes from another Nordic nation:
I mean, by the official flag code of the US we aren’t supposed to do these things either. There’s official etiquette on displaying the flag. It’s just not enforceable as law.
there have been court decisions that permitted burning and other desecration of our flag as free speech. There is no such protection in Finland, for instance.
hence my saying i was talking about the US and that the flag code was not enforceable by law. I simply said we aren’t “supposed” to.
I don’t think any of us are in any disagreement, but Angela is entirely correct. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/4/8
In fact, a multi-million dollar apparel industry depends upon the violation of articles (d), (e), (i), and (j). The reality of course is that these articles directly contradict the First Amendment to the US Constitution. And yes, per article (k), burning a flag is the proper “dignified way” of disposing one that has worn out its purpose as an emblem.
This is violates our own flag code. Section 8 (Respect of the Flag) the US flag should not be worn as apparel. Section 8j, no part of the flag should be used as athletic apparel.
Yup. The Cornell law website that I included is a clip of that portion of federal code. Good to hear from you!
Always good to hear from you.
A guy I saw on vacation had flag cowboy boots and shorts. It showed great commitment to the theme.
Brian and I actually often play a competitive game of “find the flag [clothing]” when at crowded places like festivals or amusement parks.