Summer holidays typically give Americans an excuse to take a road trip, hit the beach, and celebrate everything red, white, and blue. But sporting the American flag on your bathing suit could land you in hot water with the fashion police – if they’re brushed-up on the U.S. Flag Code.
Donning the flag on clothing, towels, or paper products are just some of the ways Americans routinely violate the U.S. Flag Code, passed on Flag Day, June 14, 1923. In 1943, Congress passed the code into federal law.
“It was created to provide a set of guidelines for (civilian) use and display of the American flag, which should be treated with respect because it's a symbol of the country,” said Peter Ansoff, President of the North American Vexillological Association, an organization for flag enthusiasts. “The way you treat the flag indicates how you feel about your country.”
While a recent NBCLX/YouGov poll found most Americans say the U.S. flag makes them proud, frequent violations of the U.S. Flag Code suggests not everyone is familiar with the recommended ways to display their patriotism.
Never Wear The Flag on Clothing
Section 8, subsection (d) of the U.S. Flag Code stipulates “the flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.”
But it doesn’t take an advanced Google degree to find tacky examples of U.S. flag apparel, bedding, or drapery.
Ansoff said he finds it “strange” that Americans wear the flag on their bathing suits, but it’s better than using it on napkins, paper plates, or other items that get easily-discarded.
Subsection (i) states the flag “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.”
Never Drape the Flag Over a Vehicle
Section 7, subsection (b) of the U.S. Flag Code states “the flag should not be draped over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle or of a railroad train or a boat.”
“When the flag is displayed on a motorcar, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender,” the code continues.
It doesn’t take too much driving in America to spot a pickup truck displaying the flag, and - to drivers’ credit – the flag is often displayed properly.
However, wrapping a truck in a U.S. flag appears to be a clear violation of the code.
Never Use the Flag in Advertising
Section 8, subsection (i) of the U.S. Flag Code states “the flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.”
Subsection (g) continues, “The flag should never have placed upon it, nor on any part of it, nor attached to it any mark, insignia, letter, word, figure, design, picture, or drawing of any nature.”
It doesn’t take an advanced marketing degree to spot the American flag on corporate or political products.
But the flag code was originally created a century ago as a direct response to its use in commercial and political advertising, according to Ansoff.
“Back then you'd see it used everywhere…for free beer and condoms and all kinds of stuff,” he said.
Ansoff also said the code took a stand against using candidates’ faces and names across the flag too, but it’s again become a regular occurrence in the 21st century.
Don't Expect Flag Violators to Be Arrested
NBCLX could find no record of fashion police making any arrests for the use of a U.S. flag on clothing. The code’s close cousin, the Flag Protection Act of 1968, which prohibited defacing or burning the flag, has even been struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of free speech.
Enforcement of the Flag Code seems unlikely.
“The Flag Code isn't coercive,” Ansoff said. “It was never intended to be. The Code itself says it's [just] a compilation of existing rules and customs.”
And even if pride in the flag is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans in Washington can agree on, there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for additional enforcement.
“I would encourage…any American who wants to show his or her patriotism, whether that means a flag on shorts or a shirt…to do so,” said Congressman Dean Phillips (D-Minn.). “And maybe we'll look - on a bipartisan basis – to try and actually encourage more of it.”
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.