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Now ubiquitous, the rainbow flag once looked quite different – though it’s always had the ambitions of the LGBT community at its heart.
As Pride kicks off this month, it’s hard to picture a time when celebrations were not draped in rainbow flags.
The LGBT community has not always had the striped symbol however. The rainbow flag was first designed in the late ’70s, almost a decade after the Stonewall riots which subsequent Pride marches commemorate. But since its debut, it’s proven a popular, enduring and highly adaptable piece of design.
On the 50th anniversary of UK Pride, we take a look back at the flag’s graphic design history, colourful development and iterations across the decades.
Gilbert Baker, an openly gay artist and drag performer, designed the Pride flag in 1978. He was 27 at the time. He had been prompted by LGBT campaigner Harvey Milk to come up with a symbol for the gay community. While the pink triangle – which had originally been used in Nazi Germany to identity gay men – was being reclaimed to memorialise persecuted gay men, Baker saw the opportunity to create a new symbol.
As he explained to the Museum of Modern Art in New York when the design was added to its collection, “We needed something beautiful – something from us, and the rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in the sense of our race, our gender, all of those things.”
Baker created the flag at the Gay Community Center in San Francisco – deliberately choosing the location as a meaningful “birthplace” for the design. Along with friends, he mixed huge bins of water with natural dye and salt – creating the brightly-coloured cotton stripes. He assembled the fabric into a striped design with eight colours.
While the rainbow pattern has instant aesthetic appeal, and likely its own connotations for people, Gilbert had specific meanings for the shades – even if they are fairly abstract concepts. Gilbert’s original meanings for the colours are as follows; hot pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for sunlight, green for nature, turquoise for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit.
“I almost instantly thought of using the rainbow,” Baker has said of his inspiration. “To me, it was the only thing that could really express our diversity, beauty and our joy.” When the design debuted at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Parade in June 1978, there were only two of them.
While the flags were initially handsewn by Baker and his friends, mass production presented a few difficulties. Hot pink, turquoise and indigo fabric was hard to come by. Baker cut the pink and turquoise from the design, and swapped the basic blue in for indigo. This six-tone design is now the most common version of the flag. Baker died in 2017, long after his flag had become the most famous symbol of LGBT rights and celebration.
Since its debut in San Francisco, the flag has exploded in popularity across the globe. It’s not hard to see why – it’s a joyful design for a historically marginalised community. Its origins are also in stark contrast to the pink star first used by Nazis, for example.
Baker never applied for copyright for his design, in the hopes that it would not be owned by anyone and so could be used by everyone. He even blocked an early attempt by an advocacy group to trademark the flag.
It’s also a memorable visual. Perhaps the most famous rule of flag design – as stated by many vexillologists (flag experts) – is that they should be simple enough for a child to draw from scratch. Think the variously coloured tricolours for France, Italy, and Ireland or Japan’s red-and-white design (known as the hinomaru). Iran and Argentina’s flags are generally considered the hardest to recreate.
Baker’s flag likely sits somewhere between the Union Jack, a middling degree of difficulty, and the easiest designs. While the stripe pattern is simple enough, it’s harder to remember the exact order of colours. It’s made easier with the mnemonic used by schoolchildren to remember the order of colours in a rainbow: Richard of York gave battle in vain (though indigo is omitted in Gilbert’s flag).
More recently, the rainbow motif has entered the corporate world – incorporated into the branding of everything from vodka bottles to confectionery packaging. This is a complicated issue; while some celebrate the acceptance of LGBT causes into the mainstreams, others see it as dilution of what Pride started life as – a protest. “Rainbow-washing” – the idea that brands take on the rainbow motif without any meaningful initiatives to help LGBT communities – has become a frequent collaboration.
Baker himself collaborated with Absolut Vodka with a limited-edition bottle to celebrate the flag’s 30th anniversary. It’s also prompted some creative reinterpretations. In 2017, Skittles revealed limited edition packaging which saw its famous rainbow logo disappear – the intention was that going “rainbowless” would allow the sweet brand to draw focus on the LGBT’s rainbow flag during Pride.
Unsurprisingly Pride organisations around the world have made use of the rainbow. Pride in London’s identity redesign last year made frequent use of the motif – filling its wordmark with the design. More recently, Lippincott based its rebrand of NYC Pride around the Pride flag, which the studio calls “a universal symbol of safety, community, and allyship”. To give it a fresh look, the agency created a rainbow gradient instead of the stripe design.
As understanding of sexuality and gender has expanded, so have variations of Gilbert’s six-colour original. It has proven itself very adaptable. In 2017, Philadelphia added  brown and black stripes to the flag to highlight people of colour within the community.
Daniel Quasar’s 2018 interpretation was the Pride “Progress” flag – which used chevron stripes to disrupt Gilbert’s patterns with colours associated with trans people and those living with HIV/AIDS, among others. The arrow pattern made the design more legible, in lieu of adding even more stripes, and also provided a sense of momentum for the movement, according to Quasar.
Last year, Valentino Vecchietti redesigned the flag to include the intersex symbol – a purple circle on a yellow background – to draw attention to the underrepresented group within the LGBT community. If ever there was a sign of mainstream acceptance, Vecchio’s design was recently featured in the parade for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. It’s worth noting that these later designs pay attention to Baker’s original flag, respecting Gilbert’s proportions and a sense of symmetry.
“What the rainbow has given [gay people] is a thing that kind of connects us,” Baker later said of his creation. “I see a rainbow flag and I think… that’s a kindred spirit or it’s a safe place to go.”
Banner image is courtesy of Shutterstock


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