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Is the
UNION JACK
back?

Dua Lipa’s Brits appearance might suggest so, but it’s complicated, says Alexandra Jones, as she ponders the state of the union

Dua Lipa encapsulated so much about what it means to be Gen Z in Britain today with her 2021 Brits performance: the joy, the yearning, the dance routines. The 25-year-old wore a chic, double-breasted blazer and matching skirt, both custom-made by Vivienne Westwood and hand-painted with the Union Jack. Over the years, the flag has become something of a uniform for young British artists with something to say; from The Who’s angry, guitar-smashing Pete Townshend in the 1960s in his Union Jack blazer to Liam Gallagher, who would take centre stage at 1990s Oasis gigs in a flag-emblazoned parka accessorised with a snarl.

Staying true to the legacy, an anti-establishment undercurrent pulsed beneath Lipa’s performance. Earlier in the evening she had got political while accepting the award for Best Female Solo Artist, calling on Boris Johnson to award NHS staff a fair pay rise. After the show, the patron saint of Union Jack dressing, Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, sent her blessing via Instagram: ‘Wow @dualipa you wore it well!’ she wrote, passing the mantle of provocative patriotism to a new generation.

Of course, like most things in the social media age, Lipa’s wearing of the Union Jack is a less straightforward statement to interpret than it would have been in the 1990s. When Halliwell strutted across the Brits’ stage in 1997 she may not have had Queen and country in mind but she did embody something bordering on patriotic: Cool Britannia, Girl Power, all that was good and hopeful about a UK on the cusp of an economic boom. New Labour and Britpop made the country and its politics sound fresh; McQueen, Westwood and Kate Moss made patriotism an easy brand to wear.

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Flagging
it up

The changing symbolism
of the Union Jack

1960s

Twiggy, The Who and The Beatles spearhead the ‘British invasion’ of pop culture. The Union Jack, with its clean lines and graphic angles, represents the height of Mod cool.

1970s

Punk tears up the flag. ‘It became a symbol of subversion and anarchy; designers such as Vivienne Westwood made it grotesque or crass. It was one of the first instances of a working-class subculture reconfiguring one of the traditional symbols of the upper classes,’ says Caroline Stevenson, head of cultural and historical studies at London College of Fashion.

1980s

The wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 swells national pride and the flag is aligned with the pomp of British monarchy. But the far-right British National Party is founded in 1982, taking the flag as its insignia.

1990s

The era of Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit in bed under a flag duvet on the cover of Vanity Fair and Geri Halliwell in the Union Jack mini-dress at the Brits. ‘We saw the flourishing of the seeds planted in the 1970s: working-class disruption of the status quo,’ says Stevenson.

2000s

Cool Britannia is commodified; Kate Moss becomes the ambassador for Rimmel London in 2001, inviting us all to ‘Get the London Look’. Naff ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ homewares go mainstream. ‘That slogan brought
the British people together during wartime but its reappearance, out of context, hollows out the meaning,’ says Stevenson.

2010s

Two royal weddings (Kate and Wills in 2011 and Meghan and Harry in 2018) and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (2012) threaten to drown the decade in Union Jack bunting. The Olympics are a high point — remember gold medallist Mo Farah draped in the flag? The spike in national pride is polarised, though, in the lead-up to the Brexit vote.

2020s

The Union Jack is taken down from outside the EU Council Building in Brussels, ushering in the age of post-Brexit Britain.