We’ve seen American flag bikinis – stars on the bottom and stripes on top or the other way around. Flags are used as bandanas and curtains. They decorate paper napkins on which we wipe hamburger grease. They appear on disposable diapers and are draped over car hoods.
It happens that strict laws still on the books cover the display of the American flag and use of flag images. All of the above examples break them. Amazon, for example, sells all variety of American flag headwear, plus bandanas for dogs.
The United States Flag Code, written in 1923, more than frowns on these infractions. Penalties for mutilating or stomping on the flag include a fine and up to a year in prison. That the law is pretty much forgotten these days must be a great relief to law enforcement. In any case, most of it became irrelevant in 1990 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that flag burning is protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
Many patriotic Americans incensed at flag burning unwittingly run afoul of the Flag Code by using flags for advertising purposes or printing them on boxes. Many of these bans may seem silly in 2017, but on others, Americans might show a bit more decorum.
The Girl Scouts imprinted on my brain the rules for displaying and folding an actual flag. But I never thought much about using flag imagery in dress until about 10 years ago, while thumbing through an issue of Glamour magazine. Its venerable “Dos and Don’ts” fashion column forthrightly addressed the matter.
One picture showed a fleshy woman in a flag bikini straddling a motorcycle. “It hurts just looking at this,” the caption read. There was also a shot of actress Farrah Fawcett looking svelte in a snug long gown made of stars-and-stripes material. The train wiping the floor behind her was, in essence, an American flag.
Glamour’s deputy style editor at the time, Maryellen Gordon, told me that the magazine had received mixed reactions to the sharp critique. “Some say ‘bravo,’” she said. “Some say they think they are being patriotic.”
For an idea of how loose the standards have become, consider what CBS did in 1970 when radical Abbie Hoffman appeared on “The Merv Griffin Show” in an American-flag shirt. It blocked out Hoffman’s torso so as not to offend the audience.
Skip to 2003 and Kid Rock is performing at a Super Bowl halftime show wearing an American-flag poncho, hole cut out for his head. CBS did nothing about it, although some old-timers complained. Then-Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia fumed that the rapper should have been “tarred and feathered and ridden out of this country on a rail.”
The Flag Code says that Old Glory is to be displayed only between sunrise and sunset, though it may fly illuminated at night for “a patriotic effect.” And there are other exceptions. The flag may be flown 24 hours a day at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, the Lexington Battle Green outside Boston and Taos Plaza in New Mexico.
By the way, there’s no objection to draping one’s car, one’s home or oneself in patriotic red, white and blue – without the stars and stripes. And flag lapel pins are OK, as long as they’re worn near the heart.
The Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005 affirmed the right of homeowners to fly the flag on their own property. Some real estate management groups had been restricting such displays.
Many Americans don’t give a you-know-what about such “rules.” I like a middle course. Let people use their discretion, and just so you know, the flag is not a rag.
Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist and member of the editorial board of the Providence Journal in Providence, R.I. © 2017 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.