British designers from Alexander McQueen to Emma Bridgewater are appropriating the flag that festooned Nelson’s catafalque. Clearly the Union Jack is not the sacred cow it once was, writes Matthew Sweet ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009
“There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”: once chanted by meat-faced racist thugs in steel-toed boots, now echoed—without the racism—in Selfridges’ handbag department. British designers from the couturier Alexander McQueen (shoes pictured) to the kitchen goddess Emma Bridgewater are appropriating the flag that festooned Nelson’s catafalque—and jiggering with its colours.
The impeccably bourgeois Boden wants you to take its Union Jack tote bag to the beach—with the red, white and blue rendered in dusty-aqua or lemon-curd cotton. Just the thing to set off your Lucinda Chambers floral Union Jack wall hanging—as you sip Nespresso from a Bridgewater Union Jack mug. And McQueen’s skull-clasp Union Jack handbag—in Selfridges’ trademark eggy yellow—can be yours for just £785. Is this what Peter Mandelson meant when he said, “we together have reclaimed the flag…from years as a symbol of division and intolerance”? Have fashionistas and middle-class mums wrested the Union Jack from neckless bulldog-owners?
The flag is not the sacred cow it was: it’s hard to imagine MPs trying to ban the sale of Union Jack knickers as they did—in vain—in 1953. No outrage greeted the YouTube video in which Scottish Nationalists advise marinading the flag in white spirit before burning. Devolution has made the cross of St George the standard over which tribal battles are fought.
But the Union Jack is not as dead as the ankh. Its history is one of promiscuity. Its use as a banner for imperialists was itself an act of appropriation: it was originally a badge, identifying the merchant navy. It has inspired Oswald Mosley and Winston Churchill, mods and punks, Swinging London and Cool Britannia. It can cope with high fashion and mail-order cosiness.
The French wouldn’t repaint the tricolour. It would be indistinguishable from the flag of Nigeria or Mali. American pride wouldn’t tolerate tie-dyeing the star-spangled banner. Which is surely why the British are doing it. Turn the Union Jack green and it remains legible. It makes patriotism as laid-back as the British imagine themselves to be. Lovely for anyone taking a Boden bag to Cornwall, but little use to a resident on a London estate who gets a Union Jack leaflet from the British National Party through her door.
Picture credit: Alexander McQueen
(Matthew Sweet presents "Night Waves" on BBC Radio 3.)