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Your Stars and Stripes T-Shirt Technically Violates the Flag Code

Wearing the American flag might be more controversial than you think.

Just two months after Abbie Hoffman and his Yippies protested at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he shook the foundation of American ideals and patriotism again, this time with what he was wearing. To interrupt the House Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington — which had gathered to investigate the Chicago riots — Hoffman donned an American flag shirt.

Abbie Hoffman, being arrested and having his shirt removed while trying to interrupt a meeting of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

He is believed to be the first and only person to be arrested for wearing a flag shirt and charged with desecration of a flag. In arresting him, police ripped the shirt off his back.

Nearly 50 years later, the American flag is plastered on shirts, bikinis, socks, election campaign merchandise, and party favors like napkins and plates. From politicians and baseball players to bikini-clad models and your cousin at last year’s Fourth of July barbecue, flag clothing is everywhere, and it’s become its own American tradition.

To this day, no one knows who designed the flag or why that particular color combination and pattern were chosen, says historian Marc Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography.Primarily used by the military at the time, the flag didn’t become a staple in American households until after the Civil War. “It was almost unheard of for individuals to fly the flag the way they do now,” Leepson says. But “it was everywhere you looked in the North after [the war]. Women wore flag pins in their hair, for example.”

Thanks to advancements in printing in late 1800s, the image of the flag started appearing on all sorts of products. So began the first wave of printed American flag items: a symbol of patriotism and commercialism. “It appeared on soup cans, beer bottles, whiskey bottles,” Leepson says. Politicians also used it heavily in campaigns.

But because of the significance Americans placed on the flag, rampant advertising that leveraged flag imagery made patriots upset, so individual states began to legislate its use by passing flag-protection laws. “As we got closer to the 1900s, what happened was the ‘cult of the flag,’ this almost religious feeling so many Americans had for the flag,” Leepson says. “It really picked up steam in 1898 during the Spanish-American war. It was the first war fought by the North and South together under the same flag.”

Around this time, Flag Day was proposed, and the Pledge of Allegiance was created for schoolchildren. “It was the start and growth of patriotic groups like the Sons of the American Revolution,” Leepson says. “[Reverence for the flag] started in the North, but then it spread nationwide.”

In 1942, a set of guidelines around the display and use of the flag of the United States, called the U.S. Flag Code, was established, though it was unenforceable. “You’re not going to get arrested for being in violation of the flag code. There’s no flag police,” Leepson says.

A man in an American flag jean jacket at a late 1960s demonstration.

The code frowns upon commercial use of the flag, like clothing. The code states that the flag shouldn’t be used in clothing, drapery, or bedding, and that no part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. Patches and lapel pins are okay under specific exceptions. But it also can’t be used in advertising or embroidered on items like cushions, or anything that will be discarded, like paper napkins.

We know, however, that these guidelines are almost never referenced. Leepson wrote about the U.S. Flag Code in 2008 in The Washington Post, and the many ways in which we violate it. “Flag lapel pins could technically be against the code, but the presidents themselves wear it,” he says.

The use of flag prints on clothing like shirts, shoes, and pants is a fairly recent trend, both Leepson and Petra Slinkard, curator of costumes for the Chicago History Museum, agree. “I can tell you that you saw very few instances of people wearing the flag before 1950, Leepson says. “If they did, it was at a Fourth of July parade.”

Abbie Hoffman, wearing a shirt made from a flag at a US flag-themed art show in 1970.

“We start to see the flag used as a component in fashionable dress more prevalently in the 1950s and 1960s,” Slinkard explains, “which was brought on in part by the United States’ involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The flag was used in both support and in protest of those efforts.”

Up until the ’60s, and certainly before Hoffman’s case, “whenever you flew the flag, it meant you were patriotic,” Leepson says.

However, Hoffman himself made the case that wearing the flag for protest was a patriotic act. At his trial, he testified, “I wore the shirt because I was going before the un-American Activities Committee of the House of Representatives, and I don’t particularly consider that committee American, and I don’t consider that House of Representatives particularly representative. And I wore the shirt to show that [the Yippies] were in the tradition of the founding fathers of this country.”

Hoffman was initially convicted, but that decision was overturned on appeal. He later spoke at an American flag-themed art show at the church in New York City, in which he (you guessed it) wore an American flag shirt. In 1976, a flag-printed bikini made the cover of Hustler.

Later, in 1989, the Supreme Court ruled flag-protection laws unconstitutional, which gave way to the slew of flag-printed items we see today. (The flag code is still very much on the books today.) “You can produce, sell, and wear anything with the American flag,” Leepson says.

Model Gigi Hadid attends ‘Tommy X Gigi’ in an American flag sweatshirt.

To get a better sense of why the average person has and wears flag clothing, I asked Mike Revenaugh, a 34-year-old Queens resident who has three pieces of flag apparel and wore American flag pants to his wedding rehearsal. “Growing up, my earliest childhood home was on the street where the fireworks were every year. I remember those evenings, when my family was on the porch and all the barbecues and sparklers. I associate it with a sense of community and joy,” he says. “I’m not disparaging the flag. It’s a joyous act. We got married on Fourth of July weekend. That’s why I busted out the pants at the wedding rehearsal. I proposed to [my wife] on our town’s Fourth of July fireworks, as well.”

But others, like Macy Moore, a 51-year-old veteran, say it’s disrespectful to wear the stars and stripes as an article of clothing. “I think being a Marine influences my feelings about it, sure,” he says. “I’m not offended when I see a shirt or something with the flag on it; it’s just something I wouldn’t do. Seems like in the past 15 years or so the idea of patriotism has changed some. More polarized, more tied to political or ideological views. I’ve never seen patriotism or the flag connected to either; I see the flag more as the symbol of a nation that allows the freedom to express those ideas. That alone deserves my respect.”

Slinkard says the use of powerful symbols in fashion is inevitable. “The U.S. flag is a very powerful symbol. It’s universal,” she says. “What fashion does frequently is takes iconography that’s important to people, or grabs it in a certain moment in time, and uses it as a means to communicate what is happening currently.”

In many other countries, flags are worn or shown during soccer games and national holidays, but the use of the flag year round seems to be a uniquely American thing. “It’s a source of pride for many people,” Slinkard says.

Jo Paoletti, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland in College Park whose focus is apparel design and the history of textile and clothing, pointed to the unique idea that wearing or not wearing a flag could make someone more or less of an American. You might remember former President Barack Obama’s patriotism was questioned in 2007 for not wearing a flag lapel pin. “Maybe that’s part of American exceptionalism,” Paoletti says. ”We really do love our country or feel strongly about it.”

The flag also has a significant place in contemporary fashion. Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger are two iconic American designers well known for utilizing stars and stripes. In one of the first designer collaborations with Target, back in the 2000s, designer Stephen Sprouse used American flag motifs for his patriotism-themed collection called Americaland, Slinkard says. And let’s not forget Catherine Malandrino’s American flag dress, which was first shown in the summer of 2001 but became popular later that year, after 9/11. Many artists wore the flag as a symbol of patriotism following the attacks.

But more and more, the flag is being used as a form of protest; or, perhaps, the iconography has become ironic in light of our nation’s problems. There are hundreds of examples, but rappers are particularly well known for donning stars and stripes as a critique. Juelz Santana covered himself head to toe in flag clothing in the video for “Dipset Anthem;” A$AP Rocky draped himself in an actual flag for the cover of his debut album, LongLiveA$AP; and Lil Wayne has performed in American flag shorts (he also stepped on the flag).

A Tommy Hilfiger model wears a flag dress.

Earlier this year, artist Shepard Fairey sparked a debate when he created a series called“We the People” that included the image of a young Muslim woman wearing the American flag as a headscarf.

Then there are ironic uses of the flag, like this viral video of a white man wearing a flag bandana, short shorts, and socks, drinking a beer and blasting fireworks, as if to say, “Isn’t this what America is all about?”

That’s not to say flag clothing isn’t controversial anymore. After a Florida woman was outraged by A$AP Rocky’s upside-down American flag shirt design sold in PacSun stores in 2015, the retailer pulled the shirt from stores.

For Paoletti, the flag’s symbolism is not intrinsic, however; we shouldn’t assume what statement someone is making by wearing flag clothing. “You can’t tell what someone is saying by having flag napkins at a Fourth of July picnic,” she says. “Are they celebrating America, or criticizing America by saying, ‘Wipe your mouth on it and throw it away?’ There’s also a difference between a flag print and the actual flag.”

Leepson admits not many people have read or even heard of the U.S. Flag Code. He says it needs to be rewritten, because it’s far too vague as reads now and allows for too many interpretations.

With the growing understanding of what the American flag can mean, should we expect to see it in even more places? The recent trend of young Cubans wearing flag shirts shows that’s likely.


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