THE STORY OF THE ORIGINAL PRIDE FLAG - AND HOW IT
INSPIRED RALPH LAUREN'S NEW COLLECTION AND CAMPAIGN
By Paul L, Underwood
When you think of Ralph Lauren and the flag, you’re likely to picture a sweater adorned with the stars and stripes, perhaps the iconic one in the RRL barn in East Hampton. Or you might even think of the original Star-Spangled Banner—the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem—which Mr. Lauren personally helped to restore, and now is displayed permanently at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C.
But for this summer’s #RLPride Polo capsule collection, Mr. Lauren turned to another icon: The pride flag, designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978. Two years earlier, the United States bicentennial marked 200 years of independence, and Americans celebrated by displaying the stars and stripes far and wide. Seeing this, Baker—a gay Army veteran in San Francisco who learned to sew in part to create costumes for his drag performances—felt his community required a flag to call its own. “We needed something beautiful,” he later told the Museum of Modern Art, which acquired the flag in 2015. “Something from us.” Taking inspiration from the colors of a rainbow, and with encouragement from Harvey Milk—the San Francisco city manager who was California’s first openly gay elected official—he set to work designing the flag we know today.
“We needed something beautiful,” said
Gilbert Baker. “Something from us.”
Baker’s original design boasted eight colors, each chosen to represent an aspect of the community: red stood for life; orange for healing; yellow for sunlight; green for nature; blue for serenity; purple for spirit. (The two remaining colors—pink for sex and sexuality; turquoise for magic and art—were eventually dropped due to the expense of obtaining the dye.) Working through the night with a team of 30 volunteers, Baker created his original flag in the attic of a gay community center using trash cans full of dye and a single sewing machine to stitch together the final product. That flag first flew in United Nations Plaza in San Francisco on June 25, 1978; later that year, it gained in popularity after Milk was assassinated by a deranged former colleague.
In 1994, a mile-long version was displayed in New York City for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. It set a record for the longest flag ever produced—and proved beyond a doubt that the rainbow flag was the primary symbol of the movement. “A flag is different than any other form of art,” Baker said, reflecting on why his work resonated so strongly. “It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not just a logo—it functions in so many different ways. We needed that kind of symbol, we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands… We are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.” Baker, who died in his sleep in 2017, didn’t patent his creation (though he did cement his reputation as its creator through his cheeky drag name, Busty Ross), thus ensuring it would always belong to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Baker’s now iconic flag served as inspiration for Ralph Lauren’s Pride 2019 capsule collection, which includes five gender-neutral pieces for adults and children—a T-shirt, a baseball cap, a hoodie, a tote bag and, of course, a Polo shirt. And the supporting #RLPride campaign stars six tastemakers who embody the values—from serenity to sunlight—behind each color in the flag. In addition, long-time Ralph Lauren tailor Albert Torres, a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, created a custom rainbow flag for the shoot, sewing the word for each color onto the matching stripe.
The collection isn’t just inspired by the LGBTQIA+ community—it will help support it as well. One hundred percent of the purchase price of the t-shirts, and fifty percent from the other items, will be donated to the Stonewall Community Foundation
This support continues Ralph Lauren’s long history with the LGBTQIA+ community—the brand has been a sponsor of AIDS Walk NYC since 1990, and has partnered with such organizations as the Harvey Milk School in New York, a public school designed for (but not limited to) LGBTQIA+ youth. In addition, Ralph Lauren is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Business Standards for LGBTI, which essentially means the company practices global business standards that protect the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community in the workplace.
All told, the movement—and this collection—embodies an expression of spirit that is distinctly Ralph Lauren. “Be anything you want to be,” as Mr. Lauren has said. “And be many things.” This collection, and the flag that inspired it, demonstrates just how many things a person can be.