True Colors

The story of the original pride flag—and how it inspired Ralph Lauren’s new collection and campaign

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 Double RL 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—and which Mr. Lauren personally helped to restore, and is now displayed permanently at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, DC.

But for this summer’s Pride capsule collection, Mr. Lauren turned to another icon: the rainbow 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.

Gilbert Baker and volunteers raising the original pride flag in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza in 1978
Gilbert Baker and volunteers raising the original pride flag in San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza in 1978
“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 2019 Pride capsule collection, which includes five gender-neutral pieces for adults and children—a graphic tee, a baseball cap, a hoodie, a tote bag, and, of course, a Polo shirt. And the supporting #RLPride campaign stars eight people who embody the values—from serenity to sunlight—behind each color in the flag. In addition, longtime 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.

A mile-long version of the flag displayed down New York City’s First Avenue to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots
A mile-long version of the flag displayed down New York City’s First Avenue to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots

The collection isn’t just inspired by the LGBTQIA+ community—it will help support it as well. One hundred percent of the purchase price from the sale of each Pride graphic tee and 50% of the purchase price from the sale of each Pride hoodie, cap, tote, and Polo shirt will be donated to Stonewall Community Foundation, benefitting an international network of LGBTQIA+ organizations.

This support continues Ralph Lauren’s long history with the LGBTQIA+ community—the brand has been a sponsor of AIDS Walk New York since 1990, and has partnered with such organizations as the Elton John AIDS Foundation, amfAR, and Harvey Milk High School in New York, a public school designed for (but not limited to) LGBTQIA+ youth. In addition, Ralph Lauren stands with the United Nations global standards for business protecting the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community in the workplace.

All told, the movement embodies an expression of spirit that is also very 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.

A close-up of the flag sewn by longtime Ralph Lauren tailor Albert Torres for the brand’s #RLPride campaign
A close-up of the flag sewn by longtime Ralph Lauren tailor Albert Torres for the brand’s #RLPride campaign
PAUL L. UNDERWOOD is a former editor at Ralph Lauren. He is based in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife and two children.
  • Courtesy of Charles Beal
  • Photograph by Weston Wells