Bad news, patriots. Slate reports that your American flag Chuck Taylors are frowned upon by the federal government. “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform,” says the Flag Code, which has been part of the U.S. code since 1942, though not enforced. “Think of it as a sort of federally mandated Miss Manners manifesto,” writes Troy Patterson.
This was a huge disappointment to me: I’ve always thought of the stars and stripes as officially sanctioned pattern-mixing. In fact, getting dressed up for the Fourth of July is the only time I reliably feel glad to be American. I didn’t catch a single U.S. World Cup game, but I’ve been planning my barbecue outfit for weeks. In addition to being our nation’s birthday, it is the one day a year when a cynical, grayscale urban-dweller can sport a loud combination of red and blue, stars and stripes. (No one at work even has to know.) Americans are objectively blessed, palette-wise: These colors don’t run — or look bad on anyone!
I blame my annual flag mania on Old Navy’s very American consumer-conditioning. When I was a kid, the store began releasing its flag T-shirts each Fourth of July. At $4 a pop, I could afford to be completist about them. And when I outgrew the tees, Old Navy was waiting with flag-print bikinis — stars over the left breast, where I imagined I would rest my hand as I sang the national anthem on a yacht.
The yacht has yet to appear, but flag apparel remains an aspirational purchase I still enjoy. These days, I begin categorizing potential purchases as “good for the Fourth” — and the associated promise of warmth and fun — sometime in March. It’s kind of like the sequined miniskirt you’re positive you’ll wear on New Year’s, thereby transforming yourself into a person with something glamorous to do — when I buy stars and stripes, I believe that someday I will find myself on that yacht, or at least in a backyard. And I think others feel similarly. Consider Chubbies, the bro-cult shorts with a brief, five-and-a-half-inch inseam. Would so many men be willing to bare their thighs without the insta-testosterone imparted by the stars and stripes? I know a woman with an American flag vest, and when she wears it to karaoke, she becomes Bruce Springsteen.
I don’t think of wearing the American flag one day a year as pure irony, but it can be — with apologies to the Flag Code — a kind of costume. I’m dressing up as the kind of person who doesn’t instinctively chafe at any display of nationalism. Patterson warns that the flag “represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing,” and it is our “patriotic duty to think hard about the ethics and aesthetics of our dialogue with it” before turning it into a tube top. But, truth be told, being a critical citizen 364 days a year is exhausting. On the other day, I want to wear some bold colors, drink from a matching Budweiser flag can, eat hormone-stuffed beef, and watch massive explosions over the sky or, failing that, in a Michael Bay movie. It’s not about turning off your critical faculties in favor of blind chauvinism. Just pausing long enough to celebrate living in a country that permits constant self-criticism.
To that end, my flag-wearing style icons are Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst, who fashion skimpy outfits from an American flag in the 1999 movie Dick, which reimagined the Watergate scandal if it had been uncovered by a pair of ditzy but principled teenage girls in killer, DIY American flag crop tops. “Isn’t it illegal to cut up the flag?” Dunst asks. “Not if you sew it back together,” Williams reasons. It’s political satire, but a hopeful one.