Why Are Flags All the Same Shape?

While looking at a group of international flags at the airport today it suddenly occured to me that all of the flags, no matter what country they were from, were the same shape. By that I mean they all had the same width to height ratio. Further, all of the flags I can remember seeing have also been in that same ratio.

Given that a flag is a unique representation of a country, why does no one have a flag that is a distinctly different shape? (Actually, I do seem to recall that someone has a square flag and maybe a triangular one but can’t connect them to a country right now; at any rate such variations seem uncommon.) Is there a “standard” width to height ratio for a flag? If so, when and why was that particular ratio selected and why is there so little variation from it?

Switzerland’s flag is square

Grr, posted too quickly.

Vatican’s too

Nepal has a unique flag shape, too. But it’s pretty obvious that these few counter-examples are the “exceptions that prove the rule”, as it were. IANAV (vexillologist), so I can’t answer the basic question.

Doesn’t it have something to do with the “Golden ratio” thing, the universally liked proportion of a rectangle?

And they aren’t all that shape. There are the ones with the trailing points, etc.

Most national flags have a hoist to fly (height to width) ration of either 1:2 or 1:1.5. The proper proportions of U.S. flag are the unusual ratio of 1:1.9 (i.e. a flag 5 feet high would be 9 feet 6 inches long).

I don’t know why this is, but I would speculate that it is due to the importance of the national flag for maritime use. A flag in the ratio of 1:2 or 1:1.5 will fly nicely and be readily identifiable from the stern of a ship. To the extent that national flags have developed or been influenced by maritime ensigns, that may be why many of them are quite similar in shape.

Qatar’s flag is a rectangle, but the width:height ratio is more like 2:1 for some odd reason. I would cite the Qatar flag as the least odd of the flag oddities.

One of the odd ones is Ohio’s. (Spoken as a native Ohioan.)

Actually Qatar’s ratio is 3:2. It’s longer than it oughta be, you know what I mean.

The obvious answer: They’re standard-sized.


OK, I’ll get this right eventually. Qatar flag’s ratio is 28 to 11, which works out to 2.55 to 1. The Straight Dope.

Just wanted to note the eerie mathematical coincidence hidden within that 28:11 ratio.

11 is 4 plus 7.
28 is 4 times 7.

The 47 Society will have a ball with that one!

I think it’s interesting that every country has a flag. Is it just some natural part of human nature to want a flag to stand for a people, or did it start somewhere and catch on with everyone else? I would imagine it’s a European thing that spread to remote places like Nepal?

Indeed. And are there countries without flags?

The state flag of Ohio is pennant shape with a notch taken out of the point - like a sideways “W.” Is there a name for this shape?

Here’s a lot of flags, all on one page: CIA - Flags of the World

Ohio has a pennant. (I know Ohio is not a country, just wanted to point out this fascinating factoid.)

Speaking of fascinating factoids, the official aspect ratio of the U.S. flag is 1.9 to 1

Why Are Flags All the Same Shape? Maybe because they all serve the same purpose?

I suppose some country could come up with some radically different shape for a flag, but then nobody would recognize it as being a flag. And identifying your ship/border/embassy/etc. is the real point of flying a flag there, so such a flag would be pretty non-functional.

Maybe you could always fly right below it a normal flag with an explanation: “the above wierd-shaped thing is our flag.”

I think the W-shape is called a “swallow tail”. Norway has both a rectangular and a swallow-tailed flag, used for slightly different purposes: http://flagspot.net/flags/no.html

Most are very close to eachother, with a number of exceptions as mentioned by others. There are however small differences between flags that may appear to have the same ratios. A quick Google search gives the follwing numbers for the nordic countries:

Finland 11:18
Sweden 10:16
Norway 8:11
Iceland 18:25
Denmark 14:17. The Danish flag has been in use since 1219 and is the oldest continuously used national flag. Cite.

Apparently I used the same site as flodnak, but I found it independently, the hamsters just wouldn’t let me post before my lunch break so my post appears to be late.

Regarding the swallow tail flags mentioned by flodnak: Many, if not most, countries have a war/state/royal flag that is slightly different from the normal flag. In the above links in this post you can see that the Nordic flags use the swallow tail design, possibly with the addition of other symbols. The most famous flag of this kind is probably the Japanese naval flag.

Well, I believe that with the dissolution of the great empires (Austria-Hungary, Ottomans, Britain, France, USSR, etc.), the majority of the world’s independant nations were formed during the 20th Century. New nations formed flags in the shapes and patterns - like the tricolor - that were already common, just to display their legitimacy.