Deciphering the symbolism behind the 13 red and white stripes on the U.S. flag is tough, unless theres a vexillologist handy.
About 170 vexillologists, or flag scholars, from 20 different countries descended on Alexandria for the International Congress of Vexillology at the George Washington Masonic Memorial last week.
Its nice when we can meet in a historic place like this, said Charles Spain Jr., secretary-general of the Federation International des Associations Vexillologiques, which co-hosted the event.
These experts gather every two years at different major cities around the world to discuss a range of topics from the material most conducive for a perfect flapping sound to the role of flags in moon-landing conspiracy theories.
Extensive knowledge of world history, geography, politics, design and symbolism is required to decode flags from around the world. Though individually those disciplines attract many scholars, the study of how it all plays out on a (sometimes) rectangular piece of cloth attracts far fewer.
None of our friends want to talk about flags, or our spouses, said Jack Lowe, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Flag Association, which was another co-host. Its like a high school reunion.
Flags evolved naturally out of the human need to represent themselves or their groups, Lowe said.
If we didnt have flags, we would use other symbols: totem poles like the Native Americans, tattoos, clothing or some other personal item, Lowe said, adding that flags caught on because they can be seen from a distance and are easy to transport.
Not all flags are created equal, vexillologists say. The City of Alexandrias flag is considered an S.O.B. or seal on a bed sheet, according to flag enthusiast Chris Bedwell.
This means city founders simply put an emblem on a plain background. Countless cities around the United States share a lack of creative spark, making it difficult to tell them apart from the rest, according to Bedwell. But Washington, D.C.s flag has a simple yet distinctive design that earns it high marks: two horizontal red stripes and three red stars above, on a white background.
Today, the utility of flags has become much more varied.
Look at the Olympic Games or sporting events. Thats the highlight of the games the flag ceremonies. People would rebel if we didnt have them, said Lowe.
Lowe was fascinated by the flags flying outside the United Nations building as a boy growing up in New York. From that first encounter it evolved into a collecting hobby, he said.
With collecting comes the art of conservation, said Bedwell, who is an expert on flag textiles.
A flag made out of silk will eventually shatter like glass, whereas cotton lasts longer but may attract burrowing bugs, Bedwell said. But theyre not just old flags, they have historical significance. A whole lot more meaning and emotion because of their associations.