This page is part of © FOTW Flags Of The World website

Heraldry vs. Vexillology

Hanging flags vertically

Last modified: 2013-12-07 by rob raeside
Keywords: hanging flags |
Links: FOTW homepage | search | disclaimer and copyright | write us | mirrors

See also:

We all know the correct protocol for displaying a flag vertically by default (that is, if there is no other issue that would require it to be different) is to set the canton again the the honour position, and that can be achieved by rotating the flag by 90 degrees and the flipping it around vertical axis, so the top side comes to the viewers left and hoist side to the top.
Zelko Heimer, 6 July 2001

My opinion on this is that it's a "rule" that only makes sense in cantoned flags. Many flags have no honour point, or the honour point lies not in the canton but elsewhere. It's the case of the Portuguese flag, for instance: the honour point is where the coat-of-arms (COA) is, in the center of the dividing line between the two coloured fields. The flag of FOTW follows closely this structure and it's honour point lies in the same place.

In the case of Portugal, I don't think there are regulations about vertical hoisting, though what's usually seen is simple rotation, keeping the COA in the same relative position relative to the rest of the flag that we see in drawings. And it makes sense.
Jorge Candeias, 6 July 2001

It makes perfect sense for a lot of flags that don't have cantons, for example the German flag has the black strip on the left when hung vertically, which means that the honour point is still in the top-left corner. Ditto the South African flag. In fact the new UK flag etiquette guide (currently in preparation) explicitly states that the rotate and flip-over should be used for hanging flags vertically, and gives the Union Flag as an exception (it just rotates because due to its complex geometry that keeps the broad white diagonal uppermost in the honour point).

Some countries (including two British territories) REQUIRE that a special flag be used if it is to be displayed vertically. To use a normal flag in these circumstances would be a breach of protocol. Obviously some the stars can't rotate on an actual flag, merely in the design. British Virgin Islands and Montserrat both need vertical flags that have the arms rotated so that they are still vertical. Other examples I can think of are Dominica (the parrot - not the ex-parrot, a parrot that has ceased to be), Saudi Arabia, Croatia (although I've seen both), Slovenia (ditto) and Liechtenstein.
Graham Bartram, 6 July 2001

I see no logic here. Flying flags don't have "top-left corners". They have an attached side and a free side and the honour point of cantoned flags is not the top-left corner but the top attached corner. Since a flag hanging vertically has the attached side on top, it's irrelevant whether is on the left or on the right (if you can speak of left and right - sometimes, when the flag is visible from both sides, you can't) to maintain the correspondence with flying flags.

All this talk about honour points is just another vexillological slavism that came from European heraldry, and that makes little to no sense when we talk about flags "in the cloth". Honestly, I think we should get rid of those.
Jorge Candeias, 6 July 2001

Many modern flags have their origins in European heraldry, so why should we ignore the protocol rules that go with it. I can assure Jorge that these matters are still carefully considered by protocol officers when making arrangements for state visits etc. In fact we double-side the vertical flags that are used for state occasions so that the question of which side you observe doesn't apply.
Graham Bartram, 6 July 2001

One of the many differences between "normal" and vertical flags is just that the free sides perpendicular to the attached sides have a lot more relevance in "normal" flags than in vertical flags. It's a lot more noticeable when a "normal" flag is upside down than when a vertical flag is... erm... how am I going to say this?... Mirrored? See? even the lack of a specific word proves the point!... Another proof of the point is the lack of specific regulations in many countries for the display of the flags vertically.

So of course it's not the same thing.

Heraldic rules don't apply. The medium is different, therefore the rules should be different too. You can't blindly transpose to vexillology all the heraldic rules because of that. Well... in reality you can, but the results are often quite absurd.

And you can't (or shouldn't) apply the rules of European heraldry to those flags that have nothing to do with it. Now, if you look at the flag-objects per se, you can't distinguish those based in European heraldry from those stemming from other traditions. There's nothing fundamentally different to distinguish the two.

Yes, we can ignore the rules of European heraldry when speaking about flags. But should we?

No, we shouldn't. There are many rules of European heraldry that are easily and usefully adaptable to flags. So what we should do is choose those rules of European heraldry that can become generic rules of global vexillology, after some adaptations, and make these adaptations. The rest of European heraldic rules are very throwable and therefore we should throw them away. One of these rules is the honour point.
Jorge Candeias, 6 July 2001

Jorge made some good arguments for his views, and though I not quite agree with him there,. I agree with the view that we should not "be slaves" to heraldry, but I believe that there are not only heraldic reasons for "having honour point".

First we must consider that there are several categories of vertical flag hoisting, and that if we mix the arguments for those we get into quite muddy waters (this was already pointed out).

So, we have vertically hoisted "casual" flags - by people who found out taht vertical hoisting is more suitable or convenient for their use, but they have no intention for any protocol. This is probably the most often, it is done by "civilians" (using civil flags) and even if there are some rules, they are often to be broken for many reasons (ignorance not being the least). I don't think that we should bother us much with "setting the rules" for such use, though it may well deserve to not the most frequent cases.

The we have vertical hoisting done in "official" occasions. Let's consider here only the "one flag display", typically one national flag. Some countries (or other entities) have such practice regulated in several ways. Some don't have such problem due to the inherent flag design (like France or Italy), so there is no need for regulating. Others does not regulate it in any way, and does not give much attention to such things anyway. But those that do, and those that regulate vertical hoisting do follow the "heraldic" tradition.

Next thing we have to consider is vertical display of few (many) flags. I believe that we could all agree that there is a need for protocol in such cases. Otherwise all we get is just a mess...

And for that we need to "know" where the "top" is when hoist is set at the top (if you know what I mean). Heraldic rules are here very helpful, but we do not have to follow the "to the last" (they are not followed in heraldry either, anyway). Some flags break the rule for one or other reason, but still I guess that we may accept that heraldic rules are very useful help.

But, even if we "forget" all about heraldic rules, we still have some things to consider. I guess that we agreed above that we need to have one default "top" side (to which we shall allow exceptions including tose that have special vertical design). For that default side we may choose either left or right, obviously (I talk about left and right of the observer, and ignore the case of "wire across street" and similar, and even those have "correct observer side", but let's leave that for now).

Left side for the "top" look more natural to me for several other reasons that are not heraldic. The technical writing for example have quite strictures how it is written in different angles (I think ISO defines that) and for vertical writing the preferred top is "leftwards". In the books when there is occasional page to be set vertically (e.g. when drawing is covering "landscape" format) it has top usually to left also. I don't really know how this both examples work in left-to-right writing environments, though, but even if it is opposite, we are already used to the exceptions coming for there, in a way.

Finally, the protocol for such cases is (or should be) designed by the people that should be familiar with precedence rules (and that include heraldry as well, protocol officers being the closes thing to ancient heralds), and for them the heraldic rules would be quite strong guidance that they would follow.

Just for the record - Croatia nor Slovenia do not have special flags for vertical display. Neither of them does not prescribe by law any other design then the "normal" horizontal flag. They both do have prescriptions on how the flag are hoisted vertically (retaining the "rotate-and-flip" honour canton principle), but nowhere they have prescribed anything about special setting of the COAs in that case. True, the flags with "rotated" COAs are sometimes seen in use, but that is actually quite rare, and usually it is seen only in cases where special flags are made anyway.

In any case, Croatia nor Slovenia does not have special vertical design. The same claim is given in Zanamierowski, but it is wrong.
Željko Heimer, 9 July 2001

Well, yes, but this civilian use is the kind of use one faces more difficulties with, even if there's not the factor ignorance involved: civilians (and small organizations like local clubs or small companies, or even the lowest levels of local power) use the cheapest of flags. And these, as we all know, come with all kinds of "irregularities": no backside, backside with no COA, not-so-right proportions, mirrored backside, etc. This is a major setback if you want to flip' n 'turn the flag as a default rule for vertical hoisting.

Notably, there's the need to do the same to all similar flags. But I see nothing wrong in the option of flippin 'n 'turnin' cantoned flags and simply flipping horizontal tricolours, for instance.

My point here is that in nearly all of these flags, either there's no intrinsic honour point, or this point does not lie in the canton. To me it is quite evident, for instance, that the honour point of the flags of Croatia or Slovenia lie where the COAs are. Flags such as the Russian have no honour point (although one can argue with some degree of validity that it has an implicit honour point, placed where the COA is in the presidential standard). So this honour point stuff is irrelevant in deciding how to hoist the flags vertically.

I base most of my disagreement with the strict heraldic "top-left" in these situations. I believe that any solution to it has to apply to all possible "formal" situations of vertical hoisting, not only to the more usual "hanging off a wall".
Jorge Candeias, 9 July 2001

When it comes to vertical hoisting, the only thing that stops us applying the same rule is that some countries do continue to use the notion of an honour point, which may not be preserved by showing the obverse. You may be able to argue that it would be simpler to do without this. However, I say that since there can (and should, IMHO) definitely be a notion of a correct way to vertically hoist a flag on a wall similar to that for horizontal hoisting, it can makes sense to require that a particular part of the flag come 'first' in the 'reading' of the flag - i.e. in the honour position. This could also be thought of as an extension of the show the obverse principle, where the designated obverse for the vertical position is not necessarily the horizontal obverse, but that is getting messy, and ignoring any sort of justification.
Jonathan Dixon, 10 July 2001

OK, let's theorize a little bit, then.

Horizontal flags can be shown, basically, in one of two ways: attached to a pole by the hoist side, or hanging from a table or wall, attached by the top side. In both situations, the top/bottom dichotomy is very obvious. A horizontal flag hanging from a table should look just as it looks like when flying from a pole, that is, should be upright. And this applies to every flag, even to those that possess a horizontal axis of symmetry, only in this case it's all easier because you just can't hoist it upside down. Also obvious is the dichotomy between the attached side and the free side. So horizontal flags have a very well-defined set of spatial characteristics.

Horizontal flags are also the default way to show a flag, so every reasoning about flags has to take the horizontal hoisting into account.

The problems that arise from the representation of horizontal flags in two-dimensional media are limited to the problem of where the hoist is in the drawing. And this is the only ambiguity there is here, and is usually solvable with ease, either acknowledging the differences in use between left-to-right and right-to-left writing nations, or through adaptations that are easy to make.

The only point that remains always visible from wherever the flag is looked at (except down) is the top-hoist angle. In general, visibility decreases from top to bottom and from the hoist to the fly, and this is why many flags tend to put their honour elements (cantons, intersections of crosses, COAs, etc) asymmetrically in the flag, shifted to the hoist and to the top. However, in my opinion, extending the concept of the point of most visibility to a concept of honour point is erroneous. The honour point lies in different places in different flags, where the main element of the flag is placed, which can even be the lower fly. Only flags with cantons, either explicit (US, British ensigns, etc.) or implicit (China, USSR, etc.) have their honour points in the area of larger visibility.

Vertical flags are very different. They can be shown attached to a pole just like horizontal flags, hanging from a horizontal pole, hanging from a rope or wire, hanging from a wall, etc. This creates a lot more ambiguity in these flags. For one, it's more difficult to establish clear-cut dichotomies between the top and bottom and the attached side and the free side, and therefore the whole thing tends to get messy.

Let's forget, for now, the case of vertical flags horizontally attached. In all the other cases you can establish a clear dichotomy between attached and free side, coincident to the top and bottom, respectively. But you cannot establish any other dichotomy with a minimum of clarity. Something that works when a flag is hanging off a wall no longer works when the same flag is hanging from a rope stretched across the street, and vice-versa. This is a first evidence of the fundamental differences between horizontal and vertical flags. But there are more.

In horizontal flag hoisting, the default situation is the situation when the flag flies freely. This is when a flag is a flag to it's fullest. So I see not reason to make vertical flag hoisting different. Therefore, the default here should be also free flying of the flag. But look at a free flying vertical flag.

It is now suspended, much more visible globally than an equivalent horizontal flag. Nonetheless, here too an area of most visibility exists: the top.

So, unlike what happens in horizontal flags, in vertical flags cantons make no abstract sense. They only exist because the global default for flying flags is horizontal and here they do make sense. What makes sense in vertical flags, in terms of disrupting the symmetry, is simply shifting elements to the top and nothing more. Cantoned flags tend to look unbalanced, heavier in one side, lighter in the other.

And these are the differences between the two kinds. You can't just rotate or rotate and shift and expect that the result is adequate. That's the very same reasoning that leads so many institutions nowadays to adopt those creepy logos on a bedsheet, loathed by any good vexillologist. If you ask me, I think many world flags should be redesigned with special versions adapted for vertical hoisting. The ideal American flag for vertical hoisting, for instance, should look like the escutcheon in the US COA: a seam of 50 white stars on blue on top and below 13 red and white stripes. Symbols should be rotated, all of them. And sometimes other changes should be made.
Jorge Candeias, 11 July 2001

This is indeed a very interesting theoretical essay, and I can't say that there is no sense in it. It is very well thought and argument. However, I am afraid that these arguments can only be applied as vexillographic "guidelines" and not for protocol rules for hoisting already designed flags vertically. It is rarely that we have opportunity and luck to do some vexillography and when we do get such chance then I am sure that this viewer should be considered. However, mostly we already have flags as they are, and we are to provide answer "how to hoist this thing vertically?". And to this we can rarely answer with something as radical as redesigning the whole thing - usually we have only two options either rotate it and hoist it so, or rotate it and flip and then hoist it.

As a good example supporting Jorge's views here might be mentioned those Bavarian vertical flags with COAs in "headpiece". There vertical hoisting is much more often then horizontal and so the design take this into consideration.
Željko Heimer, 11 July 2001

Except that the escutcheon in the US COA does not have any stars on it, and it has 7 white and 6 red stripes rather than the other way around.

I think we have a culture gap going here, driven by national differences in flag usage. In the US, we simply don't hoist flags vertically--it wouldn't seem "right" for an American flag to be attached to a crossbar and raised to the top of a pole, as is done in a number of European countries. The US flag is, of course, sometimes hung vertically over a street or on a wall, or whatever--it is also sometimes hung horizontally under the same circumstances, depending on the taste of the hanger. But my impression is that most Americans wouldn't think of such displays as flying a flag in its full "flagginess". For us, I believe, a special vertically designed flag would serve no real purpose--it would be filling a void that doesn't exist.
Joseph McMillan, 11 July 2001