The Union Jack in Fashion

The Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom, is used a lot in fashion. The design crops up time and again in menswear, particularly with brands and looks that want to anchor themselves to British heritage.

To give a little context and description on why the Union Jack design is so popular in UK fashion (and because we’re a blog firmly based in the United Kingdom), Good Clobber has put together the following post on a symbol that forms part of our national identity; The Union Jack in Fashion.

After Queen Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, King James VI of Scotland took up the throne and became King James I of England. James united the Kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1604 and combined the flags of the two countries to create ‘The Union Flag’ - a somewhat simpler design than we are used to now. Originally, the flag was used for naval purposes; later in 1707 the Union Flag was by royal proclamation made the National flag of Great Britain for use on sea and land.

Almost a hundred years later Ireland was united with Great Britain, in 1801 and the red diagonal cross of St. Patrick was added to the flag. In order to avoid having the red of the Irish Cross directly upon the blue field of the Scottish cross, a white edging was added to the Irish cross. The combination of the crosses of St George, Andrew and Patrick make up what we now recognise as the flag. The red dragon of Wales is not included, as Wales is a Principality, rather than a Kingdom. Is this a shame? Would the Union Jack look good with a Dragon in the middle? Tough one, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.

The name ‘Jack’ was probably adopted from naval / maritime usage. Ships of the age would run a small bow flag at the head of the vessel on ceremonial occasions. This was often called a ‘Jack’, hence the name ‘Union Jack’. ‘Union Flag’ is probably the correct name for the flag, but common usage is the ‘Union Jack’.

The bright colours and eye-catching design of the flag has made it a popular choice for making a statement. Many notable front men and women in musical and popular culture have used the flag to great effect. In the last fifty years, American culture has seeped into the public consciousness and many UK acts have used the flag to help establish or maintain their British identity. Notable in this are the following…

The Who and David Bowie

Noel and Liam Gallagher. Here Liam is draped in a military Union Jack for a Pretty Green photoshop.

Geri Halliwell and Kate Moss. Wow. I’d forgotten how much of an important role Geri’s Union Jack dress played in my young man hood.

And more up-to-date; Cheryl Cole and Pete Doherty, with the Union Jack tied around his wrist at Reading Festival in 2010. Probably something to do with his search for ‘Albion’ I suppose.

In the last thirty years, the Union Jack has been used as an extreme political statement and still carries from some connotations. Britain has suffered from some periods of racial unrest and opposing groups faced up against one another over the issues of immigration and racial cohesion. The design of the Union Jack was linked with this tension, as some parties used the design as a sign of defiance and extreme nationalism.

There was a time, early in my education when the Union Jack on any clothing was banned in my school, to avoid any racial tension. So strict was this policy that students with Reebok Classic trainers were made to ink over the tiny Union Jack on their shoes.

The hangover from these ill uses still exists today, somewhat. There seems to be a fine line between flaunting the design as a show of patriotism and that of extreme nationalism and racial aggression.

It is perhaps because of this that the Union Jack tends not to be used as a cheif pattern in clothing design: You’re much more likely to find a Union Jack as an accent on a pair of shoes, or a tie than see someone wearing a coat or shirt that entierly features the Union Jack design.

Despite these connotations, the Union Jack is still immensely popular. As a design, it’s featured in many UK clothing companies and has come to play an important role in the identity of many UK brands.

Barbour make good use of the design in this coat, cufflinks and messenger bag.

This one's perhaps a little more garish, maybe even jingoistic, but if you can pull it off why not?

The Union Jack plays a big part in the identity of Ben Sherman. Above is a flight bag and Union Jack wallet.

This Union Jack t-shirt are available from ASOS: Ben Sherman, Religion, Ben Sherman and Richmond.

Possibly the most common use of the Union Jack in fashion is in footwear. For some reason, having flags on your feet seems to work.

According to The Times and Italian fashion designer Kinder Aggugini the Union Jack is hugely popular abroad. “For them it has no negative connotations the way it has for some Brits. They don’t look at it and think of colonialism… They think of Kate Moss and The Who.” It seems the complex geometrical design of the flag is more potent that other European flags; Aggugini continues… “Most flags are not very interesting but the Union Jack is brilliantly conceived. So many flags are horizontal stripes but the Union Jack comes in about 13 sections.”

Religion polo shirt (can’t find out if this is still available) and union jack accessories from River Island.

It’s possible that the adoration for this design is because it’s a good combination of colours and shapes, rather than a pledge to queen and country. Youth culture has established that wearing a Jack is a semi-ironic nod to the Empire, rather than a celebration of conquest. There’s also no copyright on the design, so it’s open to use by anyone.

Ultimately, the Union Jack shouldn’t be seen as a symbol of extreme right-wing nationalism, or patriotism. As a nation, we’ve had some bad times, but this flag shouldn’t cast a shadow over our history. It’s impossible for a collection of colours to represent everyone living in Great Briton, but we should be proud that we have a flag that represents togetherness and union. It’s also a damn striking design, so why not show it off?

Thanks to all the brands above for the images. Thanks to The Times Online. And the various sites from which I’ve borrowed the celebrity pictures.

Fred Perry; more than just great polo shirts

Time for another really quick history of a design classic: Fred Prerry. Click ‘Read More’ to um, read more…

Read More

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