In a synchronized burst of patriotism, several top designers made the American flag a theme in their fall collections. But just as the clothes are being delivered to stores this week, the recent Supreme Court ruling that protects flag burning as a legal form of free speech has turned Old Glory into a political hot potato.
Legal experts gather for hearings on Capitol Hill while designer Ralph Lauren poses in his new Polo ad, wearing a sweater with stars and stripes emblazoned on the front.
Marc Jacobs, who designs the Perry Ellis collection, is showing his flag-motif fashions in Chicago this week, with a high flying, $2,400 cashmere shawl as the centerpiece. There are more stars and stripes on his pink-and-white, sequined evening dresses.
In Los Angeles, avant-garde designers Bruno Duluc and Douglas Thompson introduced flag images in their red, white and blue "election collection," of stretchy fabric shaped by wires and hoops.
With so many Americans fired up about flag burning, where does that leave flag wearing?
"Caught in a double standard," says ABC newsman Sam Donaldson, who recently discussed the issue on "This Week With David Brinkley."
"The super patriots think the flag is a sacred symbol of our country and believe it should be inviolate. By their standards, wearing it is a desecration."
But the right to use the flag in protest is also protected by the First Amendment, which is also inviolate. This side of the argument, Donaldson says, has more than a few experts agreeing: "The issue is a can of worms."
He adds: "As distasteful and repugnant as flag burning is, I think the Supreme Court was correct in its decision."
Some argue that where you wear the flag is significant. Across your heart, as in Lauren's sweater, doesn't seem like a desecration. Across the fanny of your faded blue jeans does, to many people.
"The difference between what is political and what is patriotic is one of degrees," Donaldson notes.
For designer Marc Jacobs, the stars and stripes are an artistic expression.
"Marc used the flag from a Jasper Johns painting," explains the designer's spokeswoman, Laura O'Brien. In her opinion, "It's an art piece, not a national symbol."
Slings and Arrows
So far, retailers aren't showing any signs of political hedging.
Bergdorf Goodman will fill the New York store windows with Marc Jacobs' flag-waving clothes next week.
Hiding behind the "art" label, however, isn't likely to shelter Jacobs from the slings and arrows of some patriots. It's a lesson Chicago-based artist Scott Tyler learned last winter when he placed an American flag on the floor at the Art Institute of Chicago's student show. The uproar by veterans was deafening.
Duluc, a native of France, and Thompson, his American partner, say they consider the flag a dynamic design with a very positive image. They fashioned it into surreal-shaped garments in bold shades of red, white and blue for patriotic reasons.
"We wanted a futuristic image of Miss Liberty," Duluc said. "It made sense to use the symbol of freedom."
Unlike the '60s when designers worked the flag into fashion as a political protest, designers now are flaunting the image with old-fashioned pride. It is too soon in the season to predict whether consumers will buy the idea.