Almost everyone in the United States has at least one item of clothing, jewelry, or accessories that’s printed in some way with the American flag, but most of us have forgotten exactly why those stars and stripes are so iconic in the first place. Oscar Wilde once said, “you can never be overdressed or over-educated,” and it’s in exactly that spirit that we take a moment out to remember the history behind the fashion that is the American flag.
Most of us remember that the current US flag has fifty stars representing the fifty states, and thirteen red and white stripes representing the original 13 colonies that would later become the USA. What you might not be aware of is that today’s popular fifty star design isn’t the same flag that was flying when some of our parents and grandparents were born. The American flag only had 49 stars in 1959, and previous to that, a 48 star flag was used for the better part of the 1900s. This is because both Alaska and Hawaii didn’t officially become states until 1959. In fact, the flag has been modified 26 times over the course of its lifetime.
Today the field of stars and set of horizontal stripes that are recognizable as the two basic elements of the American flag are the most used representations, but past flag designs that were used in the US include some bearing stars with six points instead of five, and others in which the stars are arranged into circles or vertical columns. In the manufacture of clothing bearing flag-like elements but not the flag itself, it’s noteworthy that most garments have at least thirteen stars. Even popular bikinis made of stars and stripes material will generally contain at least a portion of thirteen stars or more.
Beginning with those in military service following World War II, the flag also became popular for use in patriotic tattoos. Along with military mottos and insignia, a waving flag inked on the chest, bicep, or forearm has become synonymous with service to the country. Non-military patriotic tattoos are also known to contain the flag, but may instead make use of only the stars, often arranged in a circular pattern.
The flag that inspired our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” is actually a 15 star, 15 stripe flag variation that was commissioned by Major George Armistead in 1813 for the sole purpose of being flown over Fort McHenry in preparation for the impending Battle of Baltimore, during the War of 1812.