“It’s only called the Union Jack when it’s flown at sea, at all other times it’s the Union Flag” – Rose Tyler, Doctor Who.
The British Union Flag, dating back to the early 1600s, has a well-documented history of war, conquest and empire. It has also been hugely influential in post-imperial Britain, with a checkered variety of uses in design over the past 60 years, from its optimistic 1960’s espousal by the entire swinging London movement, to the sinister roots of the EDL, and back to its 1990s high fashion rehabilitation by the likes of John Galliano.
A favourite, and somewhat offbeat interpretation, can be found amongst Vivienne Westwood’s wild, surreal and – for many people – emotionally significant array of prints. Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband and creative director of the brand, recalls its inception: “I was invited to a house where these crazy people, who were descendants of the victors of the Battle of Trafalgar, lived. They had a flag from the battle and I thought it would be beautiful as a wedding dress. It has that Britishness, but it’s also distressed; it’s not pristine or new, it is over 200 years old. It was great to have it in my hands, and they let me borrow it to take to the studio.” The print would first appear on the bridal gown that Kronthaler had envisaged, as part of Vivienne Westwood’s A/W 2002 Anglophilia collection.
This flag from the battle of Trafalgar, in all its haggard glory, has become – via its recurrent appearance in Vivienne Westwood’s collections and, more recently, through a collaboration with The Rug Company and another with Cole & Son – an enduring emblem of visceral, ragged British cool. It sits well next to its older Westwood siblings: the Putti and Squiggle prints.
Fashion illustrator Richard Gray, whose work has graced editorials in Vogue, and who has worked with Givenchy and Alexander McQueen, is a lifelong admirer of the Vivienne Westwood and World’s End labels. He attributes the beginning of his career in fashion and the arts to the uncompromising drama of Westwood’s prints: “I saw a photograph in a copy of a magazine called New Sounds New Styles of the most incredibly beautiful and exciting person I had ever seen – Pamela Rooke, aka Jordan. She looked like nothing I had ever seen before. She was breathtaking. She was wearing the asymmetric Squiggle print shirt and hat from Vivienne Westwood’s Pirate collection. The Squiggle print was incredible. I had to have it. That photo changed everything for me. I saved all my money for months on end and took the trip from my small Norfolk village to World’s End specifically to spend all of it on the Pirate collection, and then the Savage, Buffalo and Witches collections. It led to the discovery, for me, of London, design, music and the excitement of dressing in these incredible, extraordinary clothes by Vivienne Westwood.”
If the Union Flag has, in its many incarnations, generation upon generation, been a symbol for London youth culture, then surely there is no version so emotive, so fitting and layered with reference and meaning, as Westwood’s. C