Monday, 1 October 2018

Flag Day

If ever there was a day to put the flags out, its today, because this is World Vexillology Day. Vexillology is the study of flags, and the word comes from “vexillum”, which is the name of the square flag the Romans used to carry at the front of their legions.

There are hundreds of flags used by the lgbt community. A lot of them have been featured on this blog, and if you want to know more about them please go to the labels list and select “flags”.

There are some lgbt vexillologists (people, like myself, who study flags) involved in the world of general flag studies as well as lgbt flags. I featured one, Mark Ritzenhein, on the blog a few months ago. There have also been some lgbt vexillologists who have designed flags for the wider community or for specific organisations. One of the earliest of these flags is that of the Society of the Cincinnati (below).
This Society was formed in 1783 in the newly independent USA and membership was open to descendants of soldiers who fought against the British. Two of its founders were George Washington and Baron Friedrich von Steuben (1730-1794). The baron, who went to America after years of being sacked from several German armies because of his gay affairs, was instrumental in turning the Continental Army of the revolutionary colonists into a formidable opponent to the British Redcoats. I’ll be returning to Baron von Steuben later in the year. Incidentally, the city of Cincinnati takes its name from this society.

The baron designed the Society of the Cincinnati flag. The design varied over the years but the stripes have remained constant. The stripes are a tribute to the 12 original colonies, as also represented on the Stars and Stripes. The light blue colour of the stripes is said to represent America. It is likely that this is in tribute to blue and buff uniforms worn by the revolutionaries, the colours I wrote about earlier in the year.

In the 20th century another lgbt flag designer of note was Paul Mills (1924-2004). He was Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California, from 1970 to 1982. He had a lively enthusiasm for modern art, and under his leadership the museum became a vibrant gallery. There’s too many of his projects to mention here, so let’s just look at three which were specifically about flags.

In 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, Paul devised the New Glory project. In what was arguably the first national flag designing contest in the USA, Paul asked flag and graphic designers to submit new designs for flags of a state, city or organisation of their choice. The 24 winning designs were turned into half of a touring exhibition called “New Glory”. The exhibition catalogue of these flags can be seen here. The other half of the exhibition consisted of replicas of historical US flags.

When the exhibition closed the flags were given to Paul Mills for his next project, the Santa Barbara Flag Project. This is one of several legacies he left that is still very much alive today.

Paul chose the breakwater at Santa Barbara’s harbour to relocate the flags permanently. The idea was to introduce specially designed flags of local charitable non-profit organisations and community groups. The idea took off spectacularly, and Paul Mills supervised the regular rotation of flags personally until his death in 2004.

Across the harbour at Stearns Wharf is another line of flags that are part of the Santa Barbara Flag Project. They were raised in memory of one of its members, Cedric Boeseke (1907-1994), and are the replica historical flags used in the New Glory Project.

Following Paul Mills’ death in 2004 the breakwater flags were not replaced and the poles remained bare until 2007 when the project was revived by the Santa Barbara Yacht Club. At the rededication ceremony Paul’s three children were guests of honour, and a special flag commemorating Paul was raised. One of Paul’s children is film-maker Mike Mills.

Following the death of his wife Jan in 1999 Paul came out as gay to Mike during Thanksgiving. After Paul’s death Mike began to write a film based heavily on their relationship as a son and gay father called “Beginners”. Described as a romantic comedy drama it was released in 2010 and starred Ewan McGregor as the character based on Mike himself, and Christopher Plummer as the character based on Paul. Christopher Plummer won an Oscar for his role.

Even though Paul Mills left us in 2004 his biggest flag project out of the three which still survives was an attempt to introduce flags to the city streets of Santa Barbara called the State Street Flag Project. State Street is the main thoroughfare heading from the harbour.

As with the breakwater flags the State Street project displays local charity flags in rotation. It has become a welcome symbol of pride for all those who take part.

There’ll never be enough room to go into Paul’s many other flag projects, including one which involved the present King of Spain, so I’ll finish with flags which Paul designed (below).

Because the flags in the State Street project are flown vertically rather than horizontally the little castle on the city flag (left) is on its side when flown vertically. Paul adapted the design to make it more vexillologically correct (centre). This flag is still flown every year during fiesta week. The two flags on the right were designed by Paul for the city of Monterey. They are based on two historical coats of arms associated with the city. The top version is the official municipal flag and the plainer version underneath is the citizens’ flag (a bit like national flags, where many countries have a state flag used by the government and a simpler civil flag used by the public).

However you feel about flags you have to admire Paul Mills’ dedication to vexillology. Other than Gilbert Baker with his Rainbow Pride flag I cannot think of another lgbt person who has made such a huge legacy and impact on a community.

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