A Controversy With Nike And the "Betsy Ross" Flag
Thanks to the protestation of at least one individual (though probably he spoke for an arousable few) Nike is rescinding from its production lines the so-named “Betsy Ross” shoe. I’ll admit, from an aesthetic and an historic standpoint, I initially thought this revocation a wise move on the company’s part. After all, our founding mothers—a charming group among whom Ross most assuredly ranks first, though Abigail Adams lags not far behind—were known more for their fidelity to the burgeoning nation than for their forward fashion sense.
Mind you, America wasn’t then what she’d become today—sartorially self-conscious to the point of crippling excess. There was only one aspect of vainglory to which she aspired, and that was to the latter of those two separable words. Glory—rather than vanity—was all that mattered in the life of a blossoming state. Glory was the ideal of which she most was desirous in all of its forms: glory for God, for country, for family, and then lastly for self. Glory was the raiment in which she hoped always to find herself dressed.
That said, the eventual donning of that glorious garb would take some time. This country, which I affectionately engender to be a “she”, was still overwhelmingly dependent on the Old World, though decreasingly so, for not only litigious and commercial concerns but for cultural matters as well. One of the few items to have escaped taxation, haught Anglican culture was a vital import to our colonies barren of original refinement and native taste. America was also devoutly religious, at times self-depreciatingly puritanical—a combination that admits very little in the way of ostentation and flair. Nowadays, we flip that order by depreciating religion in the process of exulting ourselves.
Style was rather a decadent Catholic inclination than something in which Protestants found an appeal. One need only contrast the exuberance of the Renaissance—with its pagan infatuation with color and form—to the iconoclastic austerity of the years of the Reformation from which the parents of our founders emerged. The one was enamored of fashion, the other of discretion.
In early America, a confluence of many things (most notably her fledgling revolution) was causing a diminution in sartorial concerns. And so, theirs, our founding mothers, endured a wardrobe of austerity, of frugality, and of a lack of pomp, a dress ever under the officious eye of an unpretentious Puritanical creed. It was a style into whose seams a cross-stitch of religious humility and national necessity was sewn, the latter of which was born of the shots of a revolutionary war, the former at our founding.
It certainly was a drab affair when compared with that to which the citizens of Paris were exposed. Across the sea, in the precariously pompous court of Louis XVI (upon whose largesse, one ought not to forget, we desperately relied to prosecute the final stages of our war) haute couture and sumptuous splendor abounded in the uppermost class. There, the very manifestation of ostentation found no better home. More than that, as the population by which the elites were surrounded starved, they were happy to maintain themselves in their full and regal display. Indulgent to the point of their own demise, court fashion under Louis’ reign came very near its greatest appearance and its last breath. The sight of powdered wigs atop royal heads became an invitation to contempt. While the dainty and perfectly-coiffured hair pieces became invidious to the average eye, the radical Whigs—Jacobins, Montagnards, Girondists, and the like—grew restless and wanted them guillotined off.
Style rested in the absolute complacency of its idle repose at such commodious chateaux as Versailles and Landreville. All the while, the frightfully unstylish sans-culottes (named, as it were, for the absence of a certain knee-high accoutrement) hungered, fumed, froze, and plotted in the streets. France’s own revolution was but minutes away, a radical departure from the status quo at whose height of terror many a pompadour would roll.
But, so far as we’ve concerned ourselves with Betsy Ross and the early American style of which she was both producer and product, a departure to the blood-soaked streets of Paris is not one we can now make—however fascinating the misadventure might be. We return, rather, to America, but not to that country as it existed in the middle of the eighteenth century, but to that as we know it at the outset of the twenty-first—to that of our own day.
Much to my encouragement, I realized that it wasn’t the actual style in which Betsy Ross herself was clad that Nike was attempting to capture and promote. The company, for all its ingenuity, wasn’t trying to re-establish the literal essence of 1776, though that surely would be something to behold. After all, who among so sartorially sensitive a population as is ours would voluntarily agree to don the feminine footwear of the pre-industrial age? A shoe so unconducive to the foot and to locomotion would leave many an athlete injured and even more antiquarians amused. No, Nike wasn’t planning to swap its over-priced trainers for wooden heels, its gossamer tights for cumbersome clogs.
Instead, Nike was going to release as a limited edition, Independence Day original its aptly-named “Betsy Ross” shoe. It was to be a tri-colored Air Max 1, a shoe of enduring attraction by which every self-acclaimed “sneaker head” and foot aficionado, as I prefer them to be called, is besotted. In this iteration, it was to be a particularly patriotic shoe upon whose heel there’d be pictured the flag for which Ross is so deservedly famous. As for the rest of the canvas, it was to be red and blue painted upon a backdrop of white, a celebration of the three colors that course through our veins.
Hers, though an antique, is a flag of which all Americans—assuming our education fails us not—have an immediate and abiding knowledge. For a country forever enamored of its founding and the exceptionalism that is that founding’s consequence, the Betsy Ross flag retains its relevance from one generation to the next. Unflappable yet supple, quaint yet resilient, incarnadine yet innocent from one moment to the next, it’s a flag to whose increasingly numerous stars and determinedly fixed stripes we’ve pledged our allegiance for hundreds of years. We’ve done so since that time at Yorktown when the English decided it best finally to retire from our shores. After so many years, they’d seek better fortunes and more pliant subjects under the crimson cross of their beloved St. George.
The Betsy Ross flag, the direct forerunner of the present standard under which we now stand (or kneel, depending on your feelings about the government that day), was crafted during a time of obvious danger and unease. One mustn’t forget that what Ross did was both valorous and traitorous—her valor growing in inverse proportion to the fact that she was by her every movement and by every legal measure a traitor to the crown. After all, she was creating for a rebellious horde of putative patriots and ungrateful “English” citizens a unique and peremptory flag that would delineate an entirely new country.
The flag itself was simple. More than that, though, it was virile, honest, graceful, and true. In these and other ways it was very much like the men and women for whom it punctured the sky and waved. At the risk of too deeply delving into its vexillological meaning—a study toward which Ross herself was largely disinclined—it was composed of but two parts: a canton at its upper-left corner at whose center thirteen stars encircled the blue beneath, and a field comprising seven red and six white stripes. Luminous, the stars in the coming centuries would wax but never wane, an advantage unknown to the night. Eventually, these stars would multiply to number fifty in all. This tenuous constellation, soon to be a country around which a solar system of nations would deferentially revolve, would add thirty-seven new lights to its west.
While we haven’t yet completely forgotten our history as I’ve hastily outlined it above, we’ve taken it upon ourselves willfully to misremember as much of it as possible. Betsy Ross and her eponymous flag are victims of our distinctly American amnesia and our new onset of self-hate. As such, the Betsy Ross flag—a clear triumph of our nation’s incipient struggle for liberty and an enduring homage to our past—was deemed incompatible with the purged patriotism of a seemingly innocuous Nike shoe. The flag, Nike declared in so many words, is no longer to be considered a precious image of which we can be proud, but a specious symbol for which we ought to have no tolerance.
Why, you might ask? Slavery, so goes the argument, at least as it’s given by the former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick, emeritus athlete and ubiquitous activist, rightly points out that slavery existed contemporaneously with the introduction of the Betsy Ross flag. Ergo, by the illogic of the left, the flag is no good. And, being that it’s no good, it really ought to be censored from appearing on the back part of a shoe (especially when said shoe is produced by the company for which Kaepernick is a spokesman—though surely, having been involuntarily retired for at least four years, his value is incommensurate with his wage). By and large, the men over whom that flag waved were (by dint of circumstance and of lamentable, though ultimately personal, choice) slave holders. Thus, all that they did was wrong and all that that flag represents an unforgivable sin.
The likes of Washington, Monroe, Hamilton, and Jefferson fought to perpetuate bondage when they might’ve inaugurated a newfound freedom for all. At best, they connived and at worst they advocated for the continuation of slavery for decades to come. It’s for these reasons, so goes the misbegotten Kaepernick line, that their achievements and the flag that was their symbol should be reverenced not. Certainly, their memory and the flag by which they’ve long been represented shouldn’t grace the back of an All-American shoe.
We mustn’t forget that behind this now forsaken All-American shoe is an All-American company. More than that, for no company is it a requirement that patriotism be compulsory. As consumers and citizens, however, we mustn’t make the mistake of cheapening our history by too highly valuing Kaepernick’s and Nike’s politically-correct tripe. We mustn’t accept his protestation and the company’s acquiescence that utterly have no worth. Betsy Ross and her flag are not only integral to this country, but fundamental. Hers is not an image of the promotion of slavery, but of the practice of intrepidity, not of thralldom but of freedom, and Nike missed an opportunity to celebrate those grand ideals for which her flag stands and stood.