It is an irrefutable fact that wherever two Brits meet to lament the decline of patriotism, a Union Jack will be fluttering not far away. Granted, it may be fluttering behind the scenes on a pair of boxer shorts or a G-string. Sometimes it may not even be technically fluttering, having been stencilled on the roof of a Mini Cooper or screen printed lovingly on a condom. Alternatively, it could be dangling from the gilt chain of a handbag — Karl Lagerfeld appropriated it for Chanel’s Pariscollection 18 months ago, then Alexander McQueen produced one (along with Union Jack ankle boots, jumpers and scarves), followed by Gucci. Even the prospect of the BNP harvesting an unprecedented number of votes this week has failed, so far, to dent its popularity.
These days, in disengaged, identitycrisised-out Britain, you’re never more than 10ft away from the national flag. Grown women stalked the Topshop website for months in anticipation of the arrival of its Union Jack jacket. Lucinda Chambers’s wall-hanging for the Rug Company is almost as ubiquitous a feature of fashionable interiors as cigarettes are in French Vogue. And, in a truly horrifying twist on this happy picture of a nation’s pride restored, the flag winked at us in the reflection from Simon Cowell’s dazzling white veneers as it bounced off the set of Britain’s Got Talent in a sort of postmodern take on the Mona Lisa. None of which can be what James I had in mind when he originally championed the splicing of the Scottish and English flags . . . which raises another scary prospect. What will happen to England’s balance of payments if Scotland finally devolves? Because, man, that flag is selling like hot cakes.
The designer Kinder Aggugini knows this — which is why, no matter where in the world he is doing business, when potential buyers visit his hotel suite to inspect his clothes, he drapes one of his huge Union Jacks over a sofa or chaise longue — and he’s Italian.
“Foreigners love the flag,” he reports. “For them it has no negative connotations the way it has for some Brits. They don’t look at it and think of colonialism and Millwall football fans. They think of Kate Moss and The Who. Italians of my generation grew up loving the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack, but at some point the Stars and Stripes became politically tainted.”
In part, Aggugini says, the Union Jack owes its success to its design: “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.” The military ones (as opposed to nylon ones from souvenir stands) in particular, which he has collected since he worked for Paul Smith years ago, are “so well made that you can’t even bleach them — I’ve tried”.
So cosily fashionable has the flag become that you won’t be able to move through the Debenhams homeware collection without bumping into red, white and blue china and cushions — which would be excellent news for whoever designed the flag, if anyone could remember who that was. Some historians think that the name Union Jack came from James I himself, and a cross reader who once wrote to me on this topic argued that no one should call it the Union Jack unless it is being flown at sea — on all other occasions it should be referred to as the Union Flag. Others counter that this is rubbish because in 1902 an Admiralty circular announced that both names could be used officially. So there.
Arguably the current glut of Union Jacks owes more to superficial trend-following than it does to love of queen and country, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Perhaps the British have to debunk something before they feel safe embracing it. Not so long ago, the only arms it dangled from belonged to shouty members of the National Front. And now it’s in Debenhams. See what happens when image consultants get involved? For it is another scientific fact that when consultants gather to discuss rebranding an institution, sooner or later someone will have to say, whoops. So it proved in 1997, when, at a cost of jillions, consultants advised BA to dump the Union Jack from its tail fins because it was “stuffy and institutional” (consultant-speak for associated with skinheads) and paint over it with pictures of whales skateboarding or getting jiggy . . . mere moments before Patsy Kensit and Liam got jiggy under a Union Jack duvet on the cover of Vanity Fair.
This was hardly the first time that the flag had been reinvented. The 1606 version had a makeover in 1800 when the Irish flag was incorporated (Wales, a mere principality, never got a look-in — which you’d have to say is a good thing design-wise because that dragon clashes with everything).
Then, in the 1960s, “the Union Jack became a symbol of youth culture in a semi-ironic nod to Empire,” says Oriole Cullen, curator of fashion and textiles at the V&A. “It was part of a craze for military jackets and shops such as Lord Kitchener’s Valet and Granny Takes a Trip — it was the first time since the Second World War that the flag had been shown irreverently but affectionately. Cutting up the flag into clothes had a mild shock value then — and the brilliance of the design undoubtedly played its part. With other flags you quickly lose the sense of there being a pattern but you can turn the Union Jack into anything and it remains recognisable. The other huge appeal is that there’s no copyright.”
Britain is not unique in its flag fervour (see flagpoles across the US) but it may be the only country that embraces its flag while insisting that the country itself has gone to the dogs. Yet that flag is reflective of our nation, managing to embrace the trashy (Ginger Spice in her Union Jack bandage dress — perhaps making it kitsch renders it more acceptable to us), the anarchic (the Sex Pistols) and the really quite lovely (Paul Smith’s velvet dresses).
“I never really thought about any of its connotations,” says Lucinda Chambers, the fashion director of British Vogue, which has done its share of rescuing the flag from the clutches of touristy dreck and using it to make some point about Britishness. “I just loved it, even when I was a child. The colours are so strong and the old ones are in such beautiful linens. For me it has always been about a kind of nostalgia. Really, everyone needs to give it a rest — but I can’t talk because I’ve just done another shoot with Kate Moss draped in a Union Jack for our British issue. I keep thinking that I never want to see one again but I keep pulling them out. They must represent something lasting, I suppose.”