Why Do Men Love Flag Bikinis?

Photo by: GQ
Kate Upton, GQ's July cover girl, in a flag Betsy Ross didn't sew.
1 / 14
Mon, Jul 2, 2012 11:00 PM EDT
Kate Upton in a flag bikini sucking on a red white and blue ice pop nearly "crashed the Internet" according to GQ magazine's Twitter feed, while it promoted July's cover girl with abandon. Love it or hate it, and people did both, the cover drew national attention.

Upton, blond bombshell of the moment, can take most of the credit. But so can her stars-and-stripes bathing suit.

"The flag bikini is a quintessential men's magazine look," Buzzfeed's Amy O'Dell wrote of the magazine's cover, observing two other past GQ covers -- featuring Jessica Simpson and Rachel Bilson -- in patriotic bikinis.

Photos: America's best fireworks displays ever

"Women's magazines definitely play with flag stuff, especially when they want to get extra-American around the Fourth and all that, but they don't make any of their cover girls wear it in triangle top form since it's generally perceived as tacky and anti-style."

That's because when they're not gracing the cover of men's magazines, they're gracing the exploited areas of reality stars or self-made celebrities. Heidi Montag, Courtney Stodden, and Real Housewives' Gretchen Rossi and Alexis Bellino all wore skimpy versions of the flag in exchange for a photo op and prime real estate in a tabloid magazine.

Because section eight of the U.S. Flag code states "the flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery," the image courts not only ogling but enough controversy to eek out a little extra attention.

Wildly patriotic pet fashions

That may also be the motivation behind the music video wardrobes of both Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Nothing helps a song top the charts like a controversial video.

This week a Boston Magazine blogger called for a moratorium on the flag bikini, blaming the fashion statement for "trivializing our flag and everything for which it stands."

At the same time, galleries of models, reality stars, and celebrities in flag swimwear flood the Internet every year around the Fourth of July. Clearly, not everyone's offended by the fashion statement.

The practice of ogling women in flag-wear dates to 1970, when Raquel Welch wore a patriotic semi-one-piece for the critically panned film Myra Breckinridge. The movie was largely forgotten but the image of Welch in red white and blue followed her through her career.

But the real dawn of patriotic swimwear, and perhaps the reason why it's still loved today, can be traced to 1941 when a psychologist named William Multon Marston created the comic book character Wonder Woman. She may have worn a once-piece back then, but it wasn't Modestwear.

Marston's superhero was designed to have "all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman." In a sense, she was the perfect woman, who fought evil through love, not fists. Her weapon, the lasso of truth, turned those captive into blubbering men, powerless to their own honest impulses.

Kate Upton, anyone? ("We apologize in advance for your decreased productivity," tweets GQ along with more images of Upton from the July Issue.)

More freak flag fashions for the Fourth

But to be completely fair, GQ wasn't the first magazine to put a girl in flag swimwear on its cover. Neither was the now-defunct George, which plastered Gisele Bundchen across newsstands in the early '90s.

It was Gloria Steinem's Ms. Magazine. On the cover of the first issue in 1972, Wonder Woman wears a particularly scant one-piece swimsuit decorated in stars and stripes. Above her, the cover line reads "Wonder Woman for President." It was an attempt save the female superhero from the clutches of fanboys and to remake her into a image of female potential for young girls.

Four decades later, I'm writing a story for a women's website about why men love women in flag bikinis, knowing full-well that most people will click on this story to look at photos of women in flag bikinis. I'm not sure if Ms. won out.

Who should play Wonder Woman on the big screen?

But if women haven't co-opted the White House or reclaimed Wonder Woman, they have seized the flag bikini. At AmericanBikiniShop.com, an online store for every star-and- stripe two-piece imaginable, patriotic swimwear sales have spiked by an estimated 20 percent since 2009. "We are constantly back-ordered," manager Roger Ederer tells Shine. "We simply can't order large enough quantities because we get shorted."

Mainstream fashion labels like Ralph Lauren, Lucky Brand, and Adidas have also started selling flag-themed swimwear.

Maybe the flag is a natural confidence-booster, a chance to channel your inner superhero. Or maybe women just like the attention they get from men when they wear it. And men?

According to Buzzfeed's O'Dell, most men don't really understand why they like flag bikinis so much, they just do. GQ Fashion Director Madeline Weeks offered a clue. "It's all-American," Weeks tells Shine. "It's part of the image of the approachable dream girl...the girl next door."

Can a simple flag bikini make even the most impossible American dreams, those of teenage boys, seem attainable? It's no coincidence that every bombshell of a given era, from Cindy Crawford to Raquel Welch, has been photographed in a skimpy patriotic swimsuit. Wearing a symbol of freedom, bursting from triangular fabric with opportunity, puts even the rarest of beauties on the same team as the little guy. Yes,  Gisele loves this country, and by proxy she may even love you. Or so it seems when she's wearing the flag.

In a way, men, women, magazine editors, bloggers and Internet gallery hunters like flag bikinis for similar reasons. We're just a bunch of Americans looking for a little love.

Lasso of truth.

-Piper Weiss, Shine Staff