Flag Fashion

I am always intrigued by the psychological and cognitive issues hidden in the news. The Nike Betsy Ross flag issue revealed a number of fascinating things. Stop to consider the broader context and historical nuance of the American flag as a protest and/or fashion item, and we learn a thing or two.

Not too long ago, wearing the American Flag as a fashion item was considered outrageous, disrespectful — and illegal. In October 1968, Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a shirt that resembled the design of an American flag. Political conservatives and the right wing were aghast anyone would dare disrespect the American flag by wearing it as clothing. Hoffman was prosecuted and when the judge found him guilty, he declared with tongue firmly in cheek, “I only regret that I have but one shirt to give for my country.”

Hoffman appealed, and won a reversal of the case on (obvious) First Amendment grounds, among other issues. Wearing the flag as an act of civil disobedience and protest became much more common, and much less legally daring. Indeed, there are detailed rules as to the proper display of the stars and stripes, along with what not to do with Old Glory, but they no longer carry the force of law.

If you could wear a flag as clothes that eventually will require disposal, then how far away was burning the flag as a symbol of political speech? The Supreme Court answered that issue in the 1989 case Texas v Johnson.

It was not too long after that the clothing industry jumped in, commercializing the American flag as a fashion accessory. What was once verboten suddenly became de rigueur. Celebrities quickly jumped on board, wearing flags as costumes and outfits to all manner of public events.

With that historical backdrop, consider how much things have changed in the ensuing decades. Nike’s decision to pull their Betsy Ross shoes, after Colin Kaepernick objected to the flag on the shoes caused a ruckus among the right. Kaepernick is the former NFL quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem to protect police violence against African Americans.


Put all of the above aside for a moment, and consider why you believe what you do. The shift in sentiment and politics went from angry protest to quiet disrespect to pride and patriotism in a single generation. We often think of our own ideas, feelings, and beliefs as ours, original to us. But if you stop for a moment, you might be astounded to consider how much they are not ours, and in actuality reflect the times, mores and societal preferences of the era you happen to live in.

How else can you explain this shift from Hoffman to Kaepernick in a few decades:


Wear a flag? Illegal! You should go to jail!


Don’t make sneakers with a flag on them? Outrageous! Let’s boycott


Funny how things change right before our eyes, and how we easy it is to forget we are the products of the era we live in.

Enjoy your Fourth of July.


A few interesting photos after the jump . . .