This week’s blog comes from Dr Christie Margrave, Lecturer in French Studies at Cardiff University
About two months ago I was in Paris when a French friend asked me to take some of the baby clothes that no longer fitted her son and donate them to a charity I have been working with in Kenya. Amongst the clothes was a pair of slippers, bought in France but decorated with the Union Flag. I was struck with the slightly odd thought that rarely do you see foreign flags adorning the clothes on sale in British-owned chain stores; though admittedly there has, of late, been an increase in the number of t-shirts being sold bearing phrases in poorly written French. This left me pondering the power of the popular pennon. I have been fortunate enough to travel relatively widely in the past 18 months, and one recurring theme I have noticed in countries as far apart as Kenya and Curaçao, France and Finland is the appearance of the Union Flag on clothing, textiles and accessories.
Whilst the Union Flag has been a notable feature of British fashion and pop culture since at least the 1960s, it had not occurred to me just how far its use had spread, particularly in recent years. The Union Jack is indelibly burned into the Mod Culture of 1960s Britain thanks to Pete Townshend’s famous jacket, and into the Girl Power of the mid 1990s thanks to Geri Halliwell’s Spice Girls mini dress. It has even gained a lasting association with British car design after its iconic appearance on the roof of the Mini Cooper. During and in the aftermath of the Great British Summer of 2012, which saw both the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and also the London Olympics projected on to screens around the world, the Union Flag saw itself appearing on everything from cakes to handbags, from umbrellas to mobile phone covers,
and not just in the traditional colours of red, white and blue either.
Apparently the style is so iconic that the colours of Andrew, George and Patrick are no longer needed for Jack to be recognisable, not only in Britain, but around the world. For it is not just in Britain that the 1960s fashions of Carnaby Street and the King’s Road continue to flourish. In 2012, the Union Flag was noted as becoming increasingly popular on Japanese clothing. The Union Jack ‘has become de rigueur in Japanese fashion circles usurping the Stars and Stripes of the U.S. as the design in which to be seen’, writes Julian Ryall. In 2013, the BBC reported that it was in Cuba that Jack was making his presence known: ‘The Union flag is now all the rage, sported by young Cubans on their clothes, nails – and even spotted as tattoos, and shaved into the back of people’s heads’.
But what intrigues me most is the unique way in which British identity is displayed worldwide via its flag. Whilst I am accustomed to seeing the French or Italian Tricolores adorn the entrances to their nations’ administrative buildings on both a national and a local level, and the Stars and Stripes gallantly streaming from almost all private porches as well as from public buildings, the Union Flag is neither flown nor flaunted in this way in the UK. Perhaps this is down to devolution – there are, after all, several countries, numerous islands and many flags which make up this multicultural land. And, in all fairness, whilst increasing political power is granted to the parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who would expect the flag of a 300 year old Union to continue to wave in a political manner in the same way as it might have done during the First and Second World Wars, for example? This is something which has become increasingly noticed, as the article on Japanese clothing remarks: ‘In recent years, Britons have not been ones for waving their flag at every opportunity. However, it’s good to see the Japanese doing it on their behalf’.
And herein perhaps lies the reason why I had not realised just how widespread the presence of the Union Flag had become. The individuality of British identity seems to be to draw others close in friendship not through politics (indeed many would argue that we remain virtually friendless on the European political stage), but through popular culture. It seems that whilst many countries display their flags as proudly waving banners, the Union Flag remains one to be worn, eaten and driven in – and thus shared, as, indeed, it was always meant to be.