I’ve written before about the sartorial trends of our teens and other groups of like-minded visitors, but the biggest clothing event here at the museum has to be the fourth of July. There’s no single Independence Day equivalent of the Christmas sweater. Patriotic clothing takes many forms, from t-shirts and girls’ dresses to hats (oh, the hats!), belts, and deely-boppers. There’s something about July 4th that inspires even those typically least drawn to themed outfits—older men—to sport celebratory garb. Our visitors love their red, white, and blue, and it tickles us to see the creative ways in which they show their national pride.
But that flag-emblazoned t-shirt you’re wearing this weekend wouldn’t have always been considered an homage. The United States Flag Code, adopted by Congress in 1942, laid out a set of rules for care and display of the American Flag. The Code declared that the flag should never be “used as wearing apparel, bedding or drapery” or “as a costume or athletic uniform” or “embroidered on cushions and handkerchief and the like.” Though Americans had a long tradition of depicting the flag in clothing and household items, World War II unleashed a wave of popular reverence for the flag that inspired some to protect what had become a sacred symbol to them.
Through the 50s and 60s, the flag symbolized both pride and protest, and the image of the flag became a cultural battleground. In 1968, activist Abbie Hoffman was famously arrested for wearing a button-down shirt designed to look like an American flag, and was found guilty of desecration. In 1989, flag-protection laws were struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The Flag Code lives on, but as tradition and etiquette rather than a set of behaviors enforceable by law. Here at the National Museum of American History, we take great care to adhere to Flag Code at all times in order to continue and pay respect to these traditions, which you'll find reflected in our exhibitions and programs.
As the country changes, our relationships to our national symbols and our traditions change, too. Throughout the 19th century, it was acceptable to cut pieces out of a historic flag and give them away, as the Armistead family did with snippings of the Star-Spangled Banner. Americans today find that shocking, but are comfortable seeing depictions of the American flag on clothing as long as the wearer is showing the flag no disrespect.
So button up your stars-and-stripes oxford, buckle up your embroidered flag belt, and slip on your red-white-and-blue socks without fear of offense. Whatever you’re wearing this weekend, we wish you a happy and safe Independence Day.
Megan Smith suggests you take a look at our tips for visiting during busy times if you’re planning to don your Uncle Sam hat and join us on the July 4th weekend!