CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — To celebrate Independence Day today, Americans will be rocking red, white and blue clothing with flag-waving patriotism. Many will even combine our country’s colors with stars and stripes to make what they consider a patriotic fashion statement by wearing flag-patterned clothing.
Although done with good intentions to show national pride, is wearing an item of clothing that looks like the United States flag incorrect? Area veterans — those who fought for the flag and freedom of expression — are divided; their answers varied based on individual interpretations of the U.S. Flag Code.
“This can be a controversial subject because many veterans fought and died fighting for the Constitution, which is represented by the flag. They want it to remain a sacred emblem of their commitment to their country — and rightfully so,” says Gen. B.B. Bell, who served 39 years in the US. Army before retiring as commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, in charge of South Korean and U.S. Combined Forces.
The United States Flag Code sets down explicit rules for display and care of the nation’s flag. These rules are found in Title 4, Chapter 1, of the United States Code, which is federal law.
If one interprets the code literally, its rules are being broken repeatedly. However, there is no penalty to anyone who doesn’t comply with these guidelines because the U.S. Supreme Court said that such enforcement conflicts with the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech.
To hit the code’s high points concerning wearing or merchandising of the flag:
- The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.
- The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsover.
- It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. But as Liz Brinkley of Cleveland, Tenn., points out, “This time of year you can find plates and napkins that look like a flag and I find that disrespectful. You should not use those then throw them away.”
- The flag should not be used as part of a costume or athletic uniform, except that a flag patch may be used on the uniform of military personnel, firefighters, police officers and members of patriotic organizations.
- Flag lapel pins may also be worn (they are considered replicas) and should be worn near the heart.
Some veterans, such as retired Rear Adm. Vance Fry, interpret the code literally, that it is referring to the use of an actual flag as wearing apparel.
“I keep a big file on flag etiquette, saluting the flag, and I can’t find anywhere that it says a pattern can’t be worn,” says Fry, who served 35 years in the Navy. “The code doesn’t rule out using the pattern of the flag, it says ‘the U.S. flag’ will not be used for wearing apparel. My opinion is the rules have been relaxed somewhat and common sense should be used if a shirt contains red, white and blue to look like a flag.”
Robert Cothran, Army veteran and president of Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 942, believes any use of the flag as apparel is incorrect.
“I do not like the shirts. I don’t like the shorts; that is really degrading the flag in my opinion. I don’t let the flag touch the ground. The flag was not made to put on somebody’s back,” he says.
“I fought for the flag in Vietnam. I still get cold chills and tears in my eyes when the national anthem is played or sung. As far as I’m concerned, it should not be used for apparel,” he says adamantly.
Wayne Mailliard, vice president of Chapter 942, isn’t opposed to flag-patterned clothing “unless the flag is worn as an article of clothing that is deteriorated or worn below the waist,” equating such worn-out clothing to a ripped or torn flag flying on a pole. “It shows disrespect.”
Adm. Noah Long of Signal Mountain agrees with Mailliard that there are certain types of apparel on which he doesn’t appreciate the use of a flag — bathing suits, in particular.
“In terms of wearing a shirt with a flag or eagle on it, any of our national symbols, I consider that patriotic and don’t consider it be to sacrilege as long as it’s done in good taste,” says Long, who made two tours of Vietnam and served 31 years in the Navy before his retirement.
“I think it’s patriotic,” says World War II veteran Robert Rayburn, 89, of flag-inspired clothing. “I think there’s not a whole lot of patriotism shown by society today. Having lived through WWII and knowing what it was like then, I think we need to do everything we can to be more patriotic.
“I can remember in WWII, when the whole country was patriotic, guys lined up to join the service and everybody wanted to see action after they got in,” Rayburn recalls. He spent two years in the Navy, most of that time in the South Pacific and is a veteran of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The opinions of Ret. Army Sgt. Joe Wiram, coordinator of the Veterans Student Services at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, mirror Jordan Betbeze, vice president of the UTC Student Veterans Organization.
“As far as wearing the flag in apparel, I thought that was the whole purpose of the flag in that it stands for freedom and freedom of speech,” says Wiram, who served 10 years in the Army. “So long as the apparel is not depicting anything unpatriotic or subversive toward the flag, like burning a flag, it’s all about the freedoms.”
Betbeze, who served four tours of Iraq during his 10 years in the Army, says, “I don’t have an issue with it if somebody wants to wear stars and stripes to show their patriotism. People are just expressing their opinions, and that’s what we fought for.”
Gen. Bell believes the issue calls for individual discretion on when and where it is appropriate to wear clothing that replicates the flag.
“I would not be in favor of routine wearing of garments that represent the flag. I don’t think that serves a purpose. But if it’s a patriotic event I was attending — such as a U.S. soccer game — I would be greatly honored to wear something that represented my country’s flag. At patriotic events, where it is known that it represents support for our constitution, it in no way degrades it. Other than that, I am not in favor.
“That we respect and honor our flag is one thing all Americans should agree on,” says the general.