#25: American Flag Socks

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This is depressing: we are half way through these letters and I’m writing to you about socks again. The reason I’m writing you about socks again is because, believe it or not, these socks are the only item of Polo I own that has an American flag on it. So I am not really writing you about socks, I’m writing you about the American flag sweater I don’t own.

The American flag sweater is a stone-cold classic; signed and dated it takes on the aura, as sweaters sometimes do, of a work of art. It’s a perfect confluence of symbols so profound they defy meaning. There’s you. There’s the stars and stripes.

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The sweater itself is an icon, reproduced within other sweaters on the Polo bear, deconstructed through your other lines, turtle-necked, crew-necked, or elaborately buttoned. It is a mystery why I don’t own one. (Not really. They’re very expensive. I’ve never seen one second hand. Even on sale at the outlet store they are over $200.)

I don’t want to get off-track again, evoking my amateur’s version of post-modern semiotics to talk at length about the power of the flag as a symbol, as an empty signifier of the most resilient kind, one that is capable of absorbing as many disparate meanings as the country can offer. It can be a symbol of the most banal patriotism, from the front-lawn flags that flap in the breeze of small town America to the matching windbreaker/pant set I observed on two grey-haired sweethearts at the Jefferson Monument in Washington D.C.

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Implied behind the blue-jeaned ass of Bruce Springsteen it becomes a somewhat mangled symbol of blue-collar resilience in Reagan’s America. On an album cover by Sly & the Family Stone called There’s a Riot Goin’ on it is a symbol of both menace and utopian dreaming; in black and white behind Outkast almost thirty years later it speaks of another America, hidden, beautiful and defiant.

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In the photograph The Soiling of Old Glory it moves from a metaphor of injustice to its actual weapon. Upside down on the lapel of Sean Spicer it becomes a comic set piece of tragic depth that only our crazy age could provide.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that old glory, as it appears in your clothing and iconography, means more than just one thing. It is, of course, an assertion of you and your brand and your story.

The flag sweater hit stores in 1989 just as upstart Tommy Hilfiger was making inroads into the well-tilled soil of your American dream. There is a chapter in Teri Agin’s great book The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever about the competition that went on between the two of you in the ‘90s to see who could claim more of a right to the flag. You won, dramatically, when you pledged $10 million towards the restoration of the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner. It would seem like a triumph, no questions asked. The Clintons honoured you in Washington for your work, and you were forever wedded to that great symbol of freedom.

But looking back now at a lot of the work you were doing in the ‘90s, it seems like you were scared. You weren’t being Ralph, you were Ralph trying to out “Hilfiger” Hilfiger, with a lot of what you did looking in some way like the red-white-and-blue semaphore that Tommy was using to broadcast his claims to the throne of the great American average.

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All these years later, Tommy is selling his pants at Costco and you’re still Ralph. (This is an incredibly inaccurate summation of the current retail reality, but we all have our illusions.)

But why am I writing to you about a sweater I don’t own in the middle of summer? Because this coming Tuesday is the fourth of July and Saturday was Canada Day, our national equivalent here and it marked our sesquicentennial. It was as big a fete as you could expect from a country whose Prime Minister has called us a post-national state. There have been a lot of think pieces written about this very Canadian idea, that our post-national statehood creates the anomie so many of us feel when we talk about our national identity.

So last night when I was walking around looking at fireworks and I saw two different middle-aged women wearing the Canadian flag as a cape I was a little taken aback. It’s not a great look. Our flag (this might be aesthetic or it might be post-nationalist, I am not sure) doesn’t lend itself to faux-super heroic costuming. It has never been, and never will be, a flag I am eager to wear. In fact our flag is probably most often worn, although I think the post-nationalist bearers of the Maple Leaf might not realize it, as a way of advertising when we travel that we are not American. Being “not American” might be the obscene core of our national identity. It explains why I know more about your health care system than I do about our own, why I could name a handful of your Supreme Court Justices but not a single Canadian one, or why this image is in my “Fashion Inspiration” folder but I stood shaking my head in condescending disbelief at the women I saw last night:

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I don’t share this assertion through negation, however. I’ve always said, and I am not just appealing to your patriotic instincts here, that if I were American I would be patriotic as fuck. This lie has always been pretty hard to maintain, but it gets harder and harder everyday. It is easy to sit up here on our northern high horse, loving Coleman Hawkins’ records and the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, thinking deeply about Mardi Gras Indians and the meaning of baseball, humming the spectral blues of John Lee Hooker as I dream in Winslow Homer washes, but your country, like the flag that represents it, is at once too empty and too full. Distance allows me to imagine the glory of the sweater, without any of the messy implications. My pathological cheapness means I’ll never own one.

So I may never find myself draped in the stars and stripes, but I’ll keep pulling these socks up over my calves, and always feel a little flattered as I very quickly tell people I meet as I travel that no, I am not an American.

Happy Fourth of July,

S

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