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Fringe on Flags

Last modified: 2011-12-23 by rob raeside
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Origin of the fringe

When and how was the practice of putting fringed borders on military flags begun? What were the reasons, if any, other than decorative?
Gregg Biggs, 14 January 1998

The fringe on a flag in western culture is a tradition from the Romans. The vexillum was usually fringed along the bottom edge. We don't know for sure if it had any meaning, but some vexillums, associated with more victorious legions, had longer fringes than others.

Some writers compare fringes in western culture with the flammules in Chinese culture. Oriental flags were not usually fringed until after the second World War. In medieval times, the long standards of knights, etc., were fringed in the livery colors of the arms. This is still true today when traditional standards (as opposed to 'royal' standards) are used.

In the US, the fringe has been a standard decorative addition to military colors since the French and Indian War. No meaning has ever been attributed to it here. In some places, the size and color of the fringe indicates some sort of rank.

See the New England Journal of Vexillology article on the subject.
Dave Martucci, 14 January 1998

In the British Army, and (I believe) most European armies, a distinction needs to be made between small cavalry guidons/standards, which were fringed from the earliest times, and the huge infantry colours which originally were not. In the latter case, it would have been inadvisable to further weigh down an already cumbersome flag. Fringe was added to British Army colours in 1859, the year after their dimensions were reduced from 6'x6'6" to 4'x3'6". The army command decided that the embellishment would be helpful because the reduced size had "a poor effect on Parade". But, like everything else regarding British colours, it took about 100 years to fully implement this decision. The incident which resulted in a ban against carrying colours in battle (1880) involved the old 6'x6' colours (still unfringed).
Todd Mills, 14 January 1998

Is the fringe a part of the flag?

This is an interesting question in the US. I might disagree that the fringe is part of the flag. Of course, they are physically part of the flag, but in most cases they are just an "honorable augmentation" to the flag itself. The Executive Order establishing the flag of the US gives the details of the design, sizes, colors, etc. etc, of the Stars and Stripes, but it does not include the fringe as it is not part of the flag itself. On the other hand, the US military services include specifications for the fringe when they have official flags manufactured for indoor or parade use.

In 1945 when the flag of the President of the US was re-designed, the first draft of Executive Order describing the new flag included a sentence describing the fringe (gold and silver) but it was scratched out before the Order was issued. That is because the fringe was not part of the flag, and is not needed when, for example, the president is aboard a ship and his flag flies from the mast. Obviously fringe is inappropriate for that use of the flag. When the military services procure fringed flags for official use, then the specification for the fringe is added to the specs for the flag material, the type of sewing thread, the heading, the cords and tassels, how the flag is to be boxed for shipping, etc.

To open another can of worms, there are some people in the US that think the presence of fringe on the American Flag in a court of law is a sign that the court is an Admiralty court, not a civil court, and they argue that their case should be thrown out because of "lack of jurisdiction." This often mildly irritates the judge who readily dismisses the motion. Whitney Smith of the Flag Research Center has looked into this and of course can find no basis for this belief in law, regulation, or historic practice. He asked me to search my library to see what I could find about fringe on flags and the earliest recorded fringe I could find was a flag of a group of tradesmen in Boston. (The flag was white with symbols of the craft or guild that they belonged to, I forget which one it was, now.) The flag was used during a visit of George Washington to the City in the 1790's. Obviously a very early American use, and obviously not military related.

During the US / Mexican war of 1846 and the US Civil War of 1861-1865, fringe was common on the regimental colors of Northern States (the flags were often made of silk), but rarely seen on flags of the Confederate States (usually cotton or wool bunting).

The U. S. States began to adopt state flags in the late 1800's and usually followed the practice of the state militia troops who used the state arms on a blue silk field. Sometimes fringe was included in these state laws, along with specifications for the type of wood used for the flag staff! Maryland and Kentucky go even further and require a special finial (MD - cross bottony, KY-a bird (cardinal)).

To summarize, fringe is usually found on flags used in parades or other such ceremonies, or on indoor flags. It is an addition to the flag, and not part of the design, although sometimes it is included in the specification for manufacturing the flag.

Nick Artimovich, 04 April 1996

US naval (i.e., "admiralty, maritime") versions of the Stars & Stripes never have fringe attached to them. Not when flown from ships, not when flown from halyards ashore, not when mounted on staffs for ceremonial purposes. (Nor, for that matter, do British naval flags, even the Queen's Colour of the Royal Navy)
Joseph McMillan, 22 July 1999

The same holds true of the US Army and the other branches of the US armed forces. The US flag with fringe is never flown outdoors from a pole on military installations. Fringed versions are strictly for parades, ceremonies and indoor display. The term "National Color" is generally used in the US Army to distinguish these fringed flags from the regular US national flag, though in fact the relevant Army regulation uses the term for both types.
Tom Gregg, 22 July 1999