When NASCAR officially banned the Confederate flag on June 10th, it was unclear how the new rule would be enforced. Track security guards are supposed to search for Confederate flag merchandise upon entry — the same way they would check for drugs and weapons — but a flag is easy to hide, especially if it’s worn in the form of a skimpy bikini that can be concealed under a T-shirt.
The American flag bikini, of course, is a summer staple (on Fourth of July in particular). But in the South, so is the Confederate flag bikini. For Northerners, it’s probably most recognizable from the otherwise forgettable 1989 movie Shag. The coming-of-age story follows four young women on a trip to Myrtle Beach following their engagements. On the adventure, the bride-to-be’s friend Melaina (Bridget Fonda) feuds with local beauty queen Suette (Leilani Sarelle) over the attention of a guy named Big Bob. When Melaina enters a beauty pageant in an attempt to beat Suette at her own game, Suette beats the shit out of Melaina, vandalizes her car and crushes her in the talent portion of the competition with a sexy dance in — you guessed it — a Confederate flag bikini.
“The first time I ever saw a Confederate flag bikini was in that movie,” explains David Martin, a former history professor at the University of Tennessee. Before Martin changed careers to work in public relations, his research focused on the post-Reconstruction South — particularly the era when “the Disneyfied Old South image became firmly entrenched in popular culture.”
The bikini has been an easier sell than other versions of Confederate flag apparel, partially because of the sex appeal (obviously), but also because of how white women were weaponized in Southern culture. “There are a cocktail of reasons the bikini was more acceptable,” Martin tells me. “But one of the strongest ingredients was the position white women have historically held in white Southern mythology, in which they’ve been perceived as pure and worth defending at all cost.” (Think Blanche DuBois-esque characters, but in trashier threads that camouflage the propaganda in boobs and butts.)
Danny has been in the business of selling Confederate flag bikinis — or “rebel flag bikinis” as they’re often marketed — since Shag came out. Although Danny wouldn’t disclose his last name or title at the Myrtle Beach-based company The Dixie Shop — and like many retailers I reached out to, he dodged me for weeks and was tight-lipped about exact sales numbers — he says Confederate flag merchandise is more popular than ever (controversy, as always, sells). As for the bikinis, they’re a mainstay, even at $44.99, a higher price point than most retailers. (They generally range from $30 to $40.) “We sell a couple hundred of the bikinis every season,” Danny tells me.
According to Google Trends data, a bulk of Confederate flag shopping searches between 2008 and 2015 were for bikinis, shirts and belts, rather than for the flag itself. Likewise, these searches increase not just in Southern states, but pockets of Pennsylvania and Illinois as well, when the flag comes under threat. Google searches for “Confederate flag bikini” and “rebel flag bikini” both reached all-time highs in July 2015 following the Charleston church shooting in which Dylann Roof murdered nine Black congregants. After images of Roof wearing a Confederate flag surfaced, a national backlash against it prompted the South Carolina State House to remove it permanently. But again, there was simultaneously an uptick in sales of all Confederate flag apparel, bikinis included. For instance, Dixie Outfitters in South Carolina reported that business was booming following the massacre. “As soon as we get them in, they’re gone,” ownership told the Winston-Salem Journal at the time.
It’s worth noting that these bikinis aren’t searchable under Google’s shopping tab, and they’ve mostly been removed from Amazon (though more subtle designs can slip through the cracks). The bikinis also appear to be absent from Etsy. But in the more than 2,000,000 Google search results for “rebel flag bikini,” it’s very easy to find many active online retailer options. One of the most popular is Rebel Nation, a Tulsa-based shop that prides itself on making Confederate merchandise affordable for everyone. Or as the company’s Barry Minglemorphison puts it, “If you believe in Confederate heritage and all that stuff, you shouldn’t have to take a loan out to just have a flag in your house.” (Consistent with the company’s reputation, Rebel Nation bikinis are available for $24.95, though judging by the reviews, this may come at the expense of quality.)
In a June 29th blog post, Minglemorphison apologized for shipping delays, and pleaded for patience as the store had been overwhelmed with nearly 10,000 orders in three weeks. “There has been a mad dash for thousands of Rebels all over the world to get their hands on Confederate merchandise,” he writes.
And yet, the most surprising thing about Minglemorphison (who didn’t respond to numerous interview requests) isn’t his Confederate flag apparel prices, which he boasts go as low as a soft drink at 7-Eleven, but the fact that he’s a black man. This appears to be an important selling point to his customers, who insist that the Confederate flag has nothing to do with slavery — or even racism. (What better way to plead this case than saying you bought your Confederate merchandise from a Black man.)
“I wish more people knew that a (please don’t see this as racist) but a Black man, North of the Mason Dixon line is the one that supports and sells these flags!!!” Destiny Krull, a fan of Rebel Nation, commented on its Facebook page. “They fought for their livelihood not necessarily for the right to ‘own slaves.’”
Another notable Black Confederate flag supporter is H.K. Edgerton, a former president of the Asheville, North Carolina chapter of the NAACP who now advocates for the Confederate flag as a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “Edgerton points to his family that fought for the Confederacy as the basis for his advocacy, but I’d assume each one of these outliers has their own reasons for their positions,” Martin speculates.
These motivations can be anything from blatant cash-grab, to a deeper psychological defense mechanism called “reaction formation,” where a person “retaliates against the very thing that they are, to deny that trait in the self,” explains clinical psychologist Nancy Irwin, a self-described Southerner. “Perhaps Barry is rebelling against the anger of discrimination against his people’s stance, perhaps he feels deep down that ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ or perhaps he has unresolved shame and this is his way of defending against that.”
To Irwin, it makes sense why all of this would help sell bikinis and anything else with the Confederate flag on it. Minglemorphison speaks to the revisionist history that many Southerners cling to more than the flag itself, selling the notion that the good ol’ days were mostly good (and you know, not about enslaving and brutalizing a group of people based on nothing more than their skin color). “Many of us were raised to truly believe that there were more good plantation owners than sadistic ones, denying the abject horror of owning people,” Irwin says, pointing to the archetype of Mammy in Gone with the Wind as one of the most famous examples of this.
“Much of that has to do with how firmly entrenched the mythologized version of the Old South was,” Martin says. “The idea that the South was a place populated by benevolent masters and happy slaves who whistled and danced on their way to and from the cotton fields every day.”
The academic text The New South Creed: A Study in Southern Mythmaking follows a group of Southern civic boosters who worked to create a mostly fictionalized version of the post-Reconstruction South as a place of progress, untapped wealth and racial harmony. The point being to dupe the public — particularly national policy-makers — that everything was fine, and that states and local municipalities would be better off left alone to govern themselves. “This self-righteous view enabled an entire people to convince themselves that they and their forebears had never really been in the wrong,” Martin says. “It also found a willing audience outside the region as evidenced by numerous examples from popular culture, like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.”
Which brings us back to today and Southern beaches where Confederate flag bikinis continue to remain plentiful — not just serving as a racist dog whistle but an aphrodisiac that can bring two horny people together to breed more hate. “As we’ve careened into one of the most polarizing times of most of our lives, flying that flag, wearing it or incorporating it in a profile picture sends a clear signal about a particular person’s universal ethos,” Martin says. “Often with the implied understanding that ‘if you ain’t cool with this flag, I ain’t cool with you.’ But if you are, welcome to the echo chamber.”