Gentleman Scholar

My American Fellows!

Careful about wearing flags on your clothing, please.

Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited, or posed by an editor.)

Should you ever wear American-flag gear? (Other than on the Fourth of July?)

Troy Patterson.

Composite by Slate. Flag image by Shutterstock. Photo by Christina Paige.

Thank you for your question, which is vexed and vexillary.

I shouldn’t wear American flag gear, ever, no. Maybe I would wear Gant’s “cotton retro flag crew neck” ($165)—maybe, if I were out on somebody’s boat and the weather turned cool and I were offered the loan of one, maybe then I would contentedly borrow a sweater with tastefully modest Old Glory rippling at the breast. I’d be sure to return it promptly: Your columnist loves his country but not certain strains of its native corniness, and he does not go in for graphic displays of patriotic affection. (I’d like to pre-emptively defend myself against charges of hating America by pointing out that, though I love my mother quite a bit, it’s never occurred to me to order a T-shirt silk-screened with her portrait.)

But what about you, my American fellows? Should you wear flag gear? The federal government says that you should not: “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform.” But that’s a shouldn’t, not a shan’t. Marc Leepson, the author of Flag: An American Biography, explained as much in a Washington Post piece about the strange status and vague phrasing of the U.S. Flag Code:

It has been part of the U.S. Code … since 1942. But the Flag Code is not enforced, and it’s not enforceable. It’s simply a set of guidelines that carries no penalties for noncompliance; it doesn’t even have enforcement provisions. Think of it as a sort of federally mandated Miss Manners manifesto.

Gentlemen, before we proceed, let me be clear: When we wonder upon the topic of flag gear, we’re thinking, for the most part, about garments that simply incorporate stars and stripes motifs or reproduce Old Glorious imagery, such as Scully’s “short-sleeve patriot flag shirt” ($59.95), which is attractive in its earnestness and in no other way. Sometimes we’re dressing our young sons in Old Navy flag tees ($4). Sometimes we’re getting our wives to talk our teenage daughters out of dressing in American Apparel flag-print tube tops ($25). But rarely do we find ourselves considering a garment made from an actual flag, as is the sorry case with this sleeveless hoodie “upcycled” from “a real USA high quality flag” ($199).

Seeing our flag mutilated in this fashion—or seeing it converted into a tattered platform for Ralph Lauren’s brand of decontextualized Americana on a “solid flag tee” ($39.50)—I feel a ripple of nausea. Consider this remarkable statement casually made in the Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” This occult semiotic notion opens a way toward considering that the American flag is America. A gentleman, in light of the flag’s heightened symbolic value, will see that it is his patriotic duty to think hard about the ethics and aesthetics of our dialogue with it, here in the empire of signs.

Ask yourself three questions: Does your flag gear disrespect the flag? Do you mind potentially being mistaken for a rabid jingoist? Do you look good? I’m not terribly impressed by the news that flag-printed Chubbies—a short-shorts-for-men brand at the forefront of this season’s hottest fake trend—are popular with our troops. Soldiers: It is precisely because I honor your service that I question your taste. Those shorts are beneath your dignity; leave the star-spangled hot pants to Rihanna.