Normally a flag flies proudly on the breeze as a declaration of the power and authority of its nation. To be fit for display, a flag should be intact and untarnished, and if it is not it is generally ceremonially destroyed. Sometimes, however, a flag will be displayed that is dirty, full of holes, or reduced to ribbons. When this occurs, it generally means that the nation it represents has fallen on hard times. Why else would they allow their standard to be shown this way?
Other times they can be used as a sign of defiance or hope. The country, though battered and torn, is still standing and will survive.
They are also commonly found in After the End settings or amidst the ruins of a fallen civilization.
Occasionally, flags like these can be kept and preserved if they are significant in some way, one that was present for a landmark event, for example.
Compare Burning the Flag, for when a flag is being deliberately destroyed.
- One Piece: Tattered flags are often used for high drama, but nothing quite beats Luffy standing atop of the castle in Drum Island holding Dr. Hiruluk's flag, which somehow manages to stay intact despite receiving heavy bombardment. Luffy, a proud pirate, goes through all the trouble to protect the flag because he knows that's how important the symbol of the Jolly Roger is.
- In The Dark Knight Rises as the police force gathers for the fight with Bane's people, ruined American flags are shown flying from nearby buildings.
- The end of In the Valley of Elah shows a tattered American flag being raised upside down. The Tommy Lee Jones character had corrected this same mistake at the beginning of the story, explaining that it signals an S.O.S. At the end, he's decided that message is appropriate.
- In The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the royal banners outside of Rohan's Golden Hall are so beaten up, one of them gets torn off by the wind.
- Can be seen in Logan's Run where the Old Man lives in what used to be the U.S. Senate chamber.
- The 1964 version of The First Men in the Moon has lunar astronauts discovering, to their astonishment, an old worn-out Union Jack left by Victorian age explorers.
- Gone with the Wind shows a tattered Confederate flag flying over the train yard scene.
- Seen during the attack in Pearl Harbor, a ruined American flag floating in the water.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the scene of the Endeavour's sinking shows the banner of the East India Company submerged in the water, with a body fallen from the destroyed ship caught in its folds.
- In the film of The Red Badge of Courage Henry charged with the tattered Union flag. He captured the Dixie in the end, more tattered than the Union flag.
- Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation: Shown in an ironic transition shot. After a propaganda reel espousing the virtues of the war against the Arachnids, a proud and neat Federation flag turns into the flag flown by a battlefield unit, torn and weathered.
- Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Hopeful version; as the Autobots and their allies stand triumphant amidst the ruins of Chicago, a shredded American flag is seen flying behind them.
- Interstellar. The Lazarus missions mark their habitat with a US flag along with a mission flag. Naturally after years exposed to the elements of an alien world, they become extremely tattered. At the end of the movie, Dr Brandt is shown burying her dead lover under a rock cairn next to his destroyed habitat with its tattered flag, then is shown walking to her own functioning habitat with intact flags flying.
- Encyclopedia Brown: In a moment of In-Universe Fridge Logic, Encyclopedia realizes that a man lauded as a hero shouldn't have gotten a medal because according to the story being told, the man saw the flag over a fort (that had been taken over by hostile Native Americans) flying in the rain; this should have at least given him cause for concern (as army regulations hold that flags should be put away in inclement weather), but he led the wagon train down the pass into the fort anyway.
- The Day of the Triffids (1981). The audience's introduction to the Beadley Group is a shot of a British flag, already looking frayed at the edges presumably from not being taken down at night, flying over the University of London Tower where they've made their base.
- In an episode of Revolution, Monroe launches an attack against a rebel stronghold, using a newly re-powered helicopter, and riddles the places with gunfire, slaughtering everyone inside, and leaving the flag they have hung there full of bullet holes.
- The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Omega Glory" shows an After the End version of Earth following a nuclear war, with one faction being descendants of their version of Americans, complete with a ruined Old Glory.
- Savage Skies, a mid-'90s PBS documentary miniseries about severe weather, at one point showed a shredded but still flying Puerto Rican flag in the aftermath of Hurricane Luis.
- The Johnny Cash song "Ragged Old Flag": "I take that back, I'm mighty proud of that ragged old flag!"
- Patti Smith's "Broken Flag" from Wave is also an exploration of this idea (the song is about the American Civil War). An image of a tattered American flag can be seen inside the booklet and the song is dedicated to Barbara Fritchie (1766-1862), a Unionist during the American Civil War who, according to legend at the age of 95 waved the Union flag to antagonize the troops of Stonewall Jackson, as they passed through the town of Frederick. The actual woman who did this was named Mary Quantrell.
- New York Daily News: The front page for June 18, 2018, protested the mass separation of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexican border by depicting a tattered, upside-down American flag waving behind a wire fence, accompanied by the word "Help".
- Found everywhere in Fallout, where it's a reminder of the franchise's Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair! theme. Plenty of ruined Old World buildings will have a partially-decomposed American flag hanging somewhere.
- The tattered Old World flag is the symbol of Ulysses in Fallout: New Vegas, as he talks of flags and what the men flying them stand for. There's even one on his Badass Longcoat.
- Fallout 4 has the option to craft flags to hang on the walls of your settlements. In addition to the US flag, you can craft a flag for each of the factions you're currently in good standing with, although even though they're "newly made", they're still ratty and full of holes, with the exception of the flag for the Institute, which is far less ratty.
- In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim a skeleton can be found in Winterhold clutching a tattered flag, apparently from the last stand of the Knights of the Nine.
- The Evolving Title Screen of Spec Ops: The Line shows, among other things, an upside-down American flag that is seen in worse and worse condition as you progress through the game, amid an ever bleaker setting.
- The Heroes of Might and Magic III intro has a tattered Erathian flag found and displayed in the ruins of Cloudfire, a town that the Nighon forces invading Erathia destroyed. Catherine, a princess of Erathia who married the king of Enroth, takes the flag and uses it to rally the troops that will liberate her homeland.
- Left 4 Dead 2, The Sacrifice DLC campaign begins with the survivors trekking through a zombie-infested dockyard that had been occupied by the military and FEMA expy CEDA with the camera prominently showcasing a tattered US flag flapping in the wind. Doubly significant because of the canon death of Bill, a Vietnam War veteran at the end of the campaign.
- The second case occurs in the Warcraft series. Orc (and the Horde in general) flags are generally in tatters but are still proudly flown to symbolize how much of a beating they are willing to take in order to achieve victory.
- In World in Conflict's multiplayer, there's a subtle example in the two flags shown at the top of the screen amongst other important match info. The flags start pristine and become increasingly tattered as units are lost. Since reinforcements are infinite and objectives are what counts, it's possible for the flag in worse shape to end up winning the match.
- A battered, bullet-riddled Dominion flag appears at the beginning of the Starcraft II Wings Of Liberty cutscene "Fire and Fury", representing the damaged-but-defiant condition of the Terran troops themselves.
- Star Wars: The Old Republic: Scorched and ruined flags are seen throughout the Government District on Corellia, which has become the site of a battle between the Republic and the Empire for the planet's fate.
- Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3: On Soviet missions, the mission failed screen shows a conscript weeping over a ruined Soviet flag.
- The Adamant Kinship shrine in Nexus Clash is a tattered Laurentian flag, which symbolizes the cause of the mortal world and rejection of the meddling of the Powers That Be.
- Overwatch: The graphic of the ruins of the bombed-out Overwatch HQ shows a ragged Overwatch flag standing amidst the debris.
- In the Christmas Episode of Hey Arnold!, Mr. Hyunh is telling Arnold about how he gave up his only daughter during The Vietnam War. During a scene depicting (possibly) the Fall of Saigon, a tattered (American) flag is prominently displayed.
- Wat's Pig: Wat returns the ruined flag of the nation to the castle after the first battle.
- Several American flags, damaged to various degrees, that were recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center have been put on display, one of them even being shown at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
- Another real-life example would be the flag from Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Key Scott to write The Star-Spangled Banner after seeing its tattered flag still flying after a 23-hour bombardment.The flag◊ is huge, by the way. Currently, it's 30x34 feet, but was originally 42 feet long (though that is still 18 feet short of how long it should be, based on its height).
- This trope's symbolism is subverted by the fact that most of the damage was caused, not by hard times, but by pieces of it being clipped off as patriotic mementos over many years before the flag passed into the care of a museum.
- Flags flying over military bases, forts, or castles (or carried into battle by standard bearers) are sometimes hit by stray arrows, bullets, shrapnel, or embers when the base is sieged, bombed, or otherwise attacked. Such attacks can result in this trope even for the victorious side.
- American flags (and other striped flags) made using traditional methods are prone to this because they were made from sewing strips of different colored fabric together.
- A famous poster from WWII featured a tattered Polish flag and the words "Poland: First To Fight".