While the Union Jack, which was 400 years old in 2006, is the United Kingdom's national flag it has also become a style icon in its own right. Over the last 40 years, everyone from fashion designers to rock stars have made use of the distinctive red, white, and blue symbol and wearing the design somewhere on your person is now a fashion statement for millions of people.
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British designer Sir Paul Smith remembers that the first item he ever sold in his clothes store was a handkerchief bearing the Union Jack. So when Paul was asked to design a version of Fritz Hansen's iconic piece of furniture, the 'Series 7' Butterfly Chair, to mark its 50th anniversary recently, he chose to emblazon the chair with a giant Union Jack. What makes it unusual is that, when you look closely, you find the flag is made up of thousands of classic British stamps, each bearing Queen Elizabeth II's head. It was exhibited to wide acclaim from London to Milan, New York, and Tokyo, before being auctioned for an HIV-Aids charity.
The flag entered popular culture in the 1960s, during the period when Beatlemania was taking the world by storm and Carnaby Street was the fashion centre of 'swinging London'. It has been embraced by musicians since the early days of rock band The Who (Pete Townshend wore a jacket bearing one on the cover of their first album), Freddie Mercury, and more recently Oasis, and the Spice Girls used it (remember Geri Halliwell's dress at the 1997 Brit Awards?). The Union Jack has also been used to good effect on cars such as the Mini Cooper, by footballer David Beckham and as part of the Reebok brand identity.
The Union Flag, to use its proper title, dates from 1606 when it was introduced by King James I after he became the first ruler of both England and Scotland. It is cleverly designed, managing to combine the symbols of three countries united under one monarch: the cross of St. George (England), the cross of St. Andrew (Scotland) and the cross of St. Patrick (Ireland - though only Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom). The Welsh dragon does not appear on the flag as, at the time of its creation, England and Wales were already united and Wales wasn't a separate principality.
As it is predominantly a royal flag, it can be seen fluttering above the Queen's residences Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Sandringham whenever she is not there. When the Queen is at home, the Royal Standard takes its place.
So what can today's shopper find to tempt them, 400 years after the creation of this iconic royal logo? A stroll around some of London's best-known stores such as Harrods in Knightsbridge or Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, or to Camden Market beside the Regent's Canal will uncover no end of products bearing the distinctive red, white and blue emblem on everything from ties and cuff-links to baseball caps and polo shirts.
In these and other stores around Britain and farther afield you will find some great 'takes' on the Union Jack design such as boots by Dr. Marten's and t-shirts by Reebok and Paul Smith. Lonsdale, whose first shop was situated just off Carnaby Street and cites Sir Paul McCartney and Gregory Peck as early customers, has cleverly 'hidden' the flag behind its brand name on products such as flight bags.
Then there is Ben Sherman who some called 'the king of Carnaby Street': his shirts were taken up by the teen 'Mods' of the time - they also wore jackets made out of Union Jacks. The brand hasn't forgotten its roots, producing stylish fashions today such as a cleanly cut blazer lined with hundreds of colourful Union Jacks.
It is not just British brands that have been tempted to combine the flag with some classic, timeless design work. Italian fashion house Forzieri, based in Florence, has taken a zippered leather motorcycle jacket and emblazoned the Union Jack across it, offset to one side. Bruno Banani, probably best known for his perfume and underwear, has produced a chunky men's watch with the flag filling the whole of the face, and the red, white, and blue theme continuing around the strap.
Commercialism of the British flag is not purely a modern phenomena. Back in the 1840s there were handkerchiefs emblazoned with it, and Harrods was using Union Jack wrapping paper in its early days. In "The Union Jack: a History of the British Flag" by Dr. Nick Groom (Atlantic Books, 2006) we find dozens of music-hall songs were sung about it in Victorian times. Groom's favourite is "My Girl's a Union Jack Girl", which compares the attractions of a young lady to the colours of the flag; there were Union Jack marches and polkas too.
The clever use of the icon continues into transport themes. Many travellers will arrive in Britain on board a British Airways aircraft bearing a modern 'waving flag' version of the Union Jack on its tail fin. And the latest way to get around the south coast seaside city of Brighton—well known for its great shopping and nightlife—is on board an eco-friendly version of the Asian 'Tuk Tuk'—at least one of which is emblazoned with an all-over Union Jack.
Though it has grown in popularity as a design icon, ironically the flag is probably seen less in its official role now (atop important buildings for example) than ever before. With the political devolution that has taken place, people are more likely to see the flags of the UK's constituent countries flying in those countries: the white cross of St. Andrew in Scotland, the red cross of St. George in England, the red dragon of Wales and the Ulster Flag in Northern Ireland. But the Union Jack still has an important role to play, signifying unity and liberty and acting as a rallying point for consumers in shopping malls, department stores and wherever fine brands are gathered.
Information courtesy VisitBritain