According to flag design guru Roman Mars, the Netherlands’ most badass city flies the coolest flag not only in the country, but also the entire world.
In a 2015 TED talk about vexillology (the study of flags), design guru/flag fanatic Roman Mars confirmed what few Amsterdammers would dispute: the Dutch capital flies the most badass city flag in the world. For those confused about the meaning of badass (American slang that came into vogue in the 1950s), the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “formidable” or “superlative” when used to describe something.
Compared to such dismal attempts at civic pride as the city flags of San Francisco and Milwaukee on the other side of the pond, Amsterdam’s flying emblem is simple, symbolic and distinctive. Which may explain why it’s ubiquitous throughout the city.
The City Flag is Everywhere in Amsterdam
If you’ve ever visited the Netherlands’ capital, you’ve inevitably seen versions of Amsterdam’s city flag not only flying on poles, but also embellishing bus stops, bridges, manhole covers, official uniforms, and the armbands of Ajax football captains. The design—a black horizontal banner stamped with three white crosses on a solid red ground—also appears in 3D, sometimes vertical form on buildings, retail marquees, museum signs, and those brown, meter-high poles that keep cars off sidewalks, locally known as Amsterdammertjes.
In Dutch souvenir shops, Amsterdam’s flag is imprinted on mugs, key chains, ashtrays, shot glasses, sex toys, and thousands of other knickknacks that are silently calling your name. Call it local pride on steroids, amplified by everyone from retailers to architects, government officials, concert organizers and festival planners.
Five Design Guidelines
So what’s so special about this city flag? According to Mars, its design meets one guideline not with flying colors, but with three standard ones. Other design criteria, gleaned from the North American Vexillological Association, include simplicity, meaningful symbolism, and an absence of writing, lettering and seals. A fifth guideline—be distinctive—is uniquely subjective.
A good flag design must be so simple a child can draw it from memory, says Mars. And given the proper tools, exposure, and powers of observation, any young Dutchie should be able to reproduce the banner accessorized with “XXX” on Amsterdam’s city flag. Its simplicity made it easily visible to 16th-century fishermen, who introduced it when Amsterdam was a tiny village on the Amstel. Their successors flew it at the height of the city’s dominance of the seas in the Golden Age.
Keeping it Simple
While it’s based on a coat of arms dating back to 1280, Amsterdam’s city flag features just a snippet of the official shield. Had it included the two golden lions flanking that shield and the Imperial Crown of Austria—added in 1489 to honor help during the Jonker French War—topping it, a child might be challenged in a drawing exercise.
Had Amsterdam’s city flag incorporated its entire coat of arms, a child might be challenged to draw it.
Unlike some contemporary flag designers, the fishermen behind Amsterdam’s city flag understood the value of simplicity. By reducing the flag to basic elements of the official shield, they created an easily recognized symbol all local ships have flown since 1505. In 1928, it appeared on a program of the Summer Olympics, held in Amsterdam. But it was not until 1975 that it became the official symbol of the Netherlands’ capital.
Amsterdam’s city flag was used as an unofficial emblem long before it was named the official city symbol in 1975. Here it’s tucked into an equestrian day program of the 1928 Summer Olympics, held in Amsterdam.
Theories about the symbolism behind Amsterdam’s city flag abound. According to one, the three Xs represent the trio of ordeals that challenged medieval Amsterdam: fire, floods, and the Black Death. Indeed, some believed they warded off these dangers. But three Xs were used to mark the homes of noble Dutch families more than a century before the bubonic plague ravaged Europe in 1346. Which makes these theories historically inaccurate.
Could the “XXX” on Amsterdam’s 700-year-old coat of arms be shorthand for the X-rated naughtiness of the infamous Red Light District? Given how many centuries the symbol’s use preceded De Wallen’s neon-lit windows, that theory goes out the window. More romantic but equally far-fetched is the notion that three Xs represent the three air kisses Dutchies exchange when they greet each other.
What “XXX” Really Means
As creative as these urban legends are, the truth is a bit more boring. The three Xs on Amsterdam’s coat of arms are technically silver St. Andrew’s crosses, also called saltires—a heraldic symbol used in the flags of Scotland and Great Britain. The cross is named after the fisherman-apostle of Jesus who was martyred on an X-shaped cross in the 1st century AD.
Most historians concur that “XXX” on Amsterdam’s city flag is a case of old-fashioned sponsorship linked to the powerful Persijn family. Jan Persijn was a knight who served as Lord of Amsterdam from 1280 to 1282, whose family shield incorporated St. Andrew’s crosses. His clan of medieval land barons owned two villages near the capital: Ouder-Amstel on the banks of the Amstel to the southeast, and Nieuwer-Amstel, now the suburb of Amstelveen, to the southwest. During the 13th-century Crusades, both towns flew flags featuring St. Andrew’s crosses.
Numerous experts also surmise that the middle stripes in the coats of arms of Dordrecht and Delft, two other Dutch cities, symbolize water. Using this logic, the black banner on Amsterdam’s flag could represent the Amstel, while three white crosses stand for places you could cross that river in medieval times. Since a black banner is used in other shields of cities along the Amstel, this could be a plausible argument.
Mars’ design criteria mandates just two to three colors in a flag. And not just any colors. Forget exotic Pantone shades like magenta or tangerine. Instead, think standard colors, defined as red, white, blue, green, yellow and black by the vexillology guru. By excerpting Amsterdam’s red, white and black coat of arms for a flag, medieval designers incorporated the boldest basic colors in a simple, tricolor design. Gone are the subtle golds, tans and grays of the official shield in favor of tones that are easily duplicated and highly visible.
Like Amsterdam’s city flag, the Dutch national flag features a simple, tricolor design. Here it adorns spears for a national dish: brined herring with onions and pickles.
In similar form, the Dutch national flag features three bands of basic colors: red on top for bravery, strength and valor; white in the middle for honesty and peace; and blue on the bottom for loyalty, justice and vigilance. This order is good to remember on Koningsdag, especially if you join Dutchies, tourists and confused expats in painting the flag of the Netherlands on your cheeks for the year’s most badass street party.
Hold the Writing
Amsterdam’s city shield includes a banner added after World War II, inscribed with an aspirational motto: Heldhaftig, Vastberaden, Barmhartig. In 1947, Queen Wilhelmina decreed these words to mean compassion, resolution and heroism—important virtues during the Dutch resistance movement and 1941 February strike, in which non-Jews protested against Jewish persecution by the Nazis. Contemporary comedians have updated the phrase to mean defiant, stubborn and tolerant.
Whatever its meaning, the banner is absent from Amsterdam’s city flag, a wise move by Mars’ standards. His final criteria—be distinctive—is as subjective as what every mirror reveals: that beauty, like flag design, is in the eyes of the beholder. So what do YOU think? Is Amsterdam’s city flag truly badass?