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Wear it proud: The flag as fashion statement

- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 7, 2012

LONDON — There was no mystery as to which team Varun Pemmaraju was supporting: His American flag was tied around his neck, the Stars and Stripes floating like a cape behind him.

"I was going for the Superman, Captain America look," said the beaming 19-year-old computer science and chemical engineering student from San Jose, Calif., as he stood a stone's throw from Olympic Stadium. "I thought America was a little underrepresented."

Patriotism and the Olympic Games have long gone together, but gone are the days when one just waved a flag. Now flags are worn.

The fashion flags can be found at Olympic Park and around London as shift dresses and smocks, pants and shorts, hats and shoes, even dangly earrings and bracelets. There's apparently no garment — or nail polish — that can't be fashioned into something akin to a national banner.

Although the sponsorship police at the International Olympic Committee can stop merchants from using the five Olympic rings, there's no trademark police on flags.

Besides, capitalizing on a good fashion idea is not new. In recent years, "fast fashion" has transformed the retail industry as mainstream companies seize the hottest ideas from the catwalk, copy them as quickly as possible and move them onto shop floors. Some manufacturers have gotten so fast they can produce wearable creations from factory to store in the same season they were created by top designers at Chanel, Ralph Lauren or Dior.

None of these flag fashions is going to give Burberry a run for its money — the styles are not made to last.

Jayne Ody got her raincoat, covered in Union Jacks, from Primark, a British store that specializes in cheap, cheerful fashion. It was a bargain at $13.

Her friend Ann Wanklyn was wearing two dragon-emblazoned Welsh flags that had been sewn together into a simple shift dress. But Ms. Wanklyn is not about to claim she's a fashion princess — Olympic Park is a sporty crowd.

"You won't see anyone here walking around in heels, I can tell you that," she said.

Turns out those flags also can be handy in the unpredictable British weather. At least one vendor sells a plastic variety that doubles as a raincoat. The British flag, as one might expect, is very popular, but so is the tricolor of France and the triangle-cornered ones of the Czech Republic.

Then there are the Dutch. Who needs a flag when your nation is basically a color — blinding orange? There are orange jackets, overalls and shoes, but you hardly ever see the Dutch flag.

The orange also comes in the form of tiny hats — a bargain at $1.56 each — as worn by three Wagenaar sisters. Sabine Wagenaar, 24, simply laughed when asked about her fashion choice.

"It's a nice little hat," she said, giggling. "It's girlie."

Then there are those just trying to buck up their athletes. Hugh Barton, 11, from Brisbane, Australia, was sad the Aussie swimmers weren't at their best this year. He wore a flag around his neck and held one in his hand for maximum patriotism.

"Australia needs moral support," he said.

Before the games, American athletes were briefed on how to hold the flag should they win. The U.S. Olympic Committee pointed out a picture of swimmer Missy Franklin displaying the flag properly after winning the gold — right hand on stars, left hand on stripes.

Americans have rules outlining the proper way to show respect to the flag, and athletes, as ambassadors and representatives of their country, are expected to respect that and do it right. Under federal law, the flag is not dipped to any person or thing, for example.

"The [USOC takes] the ambassador program very seriously," said Bill Mallon, a historian. "They try to avoid the ugly American image by doing proper things at the games and teaching [athletes] the right things to do."

But fans at Olympic Park wearing the Stars and Stripes were doing so in joy and exuberance, honoring the flag in their own little way.

"It's a way of celebrating all the things that your country is about," said Mr. Pemmaraju, the University of California student. "I know America is not a perfect country ... but it's got me where I am. I'm proud to be an American."

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