Flying the flag: Decoding sailing's secret symbols

Story highlights

  • Rare sea flags stored in London museum
  • Centuries-old textiles from across globe

(CNN)Hidden within the vast storage rooms of London's National Maritime Museum are hundreds of historic sea flags rarely seen by the public -- until now.

From delicate silk 19th-century Chinese flags to bold Nazi Germany prints, the extensive collection of fabrics is an intriguing porthole into another time.
    "Flags are symbols -- of national identity, affiliation, pride, and even submission. After all, when a ship surrendered it raised a white flag," James Davey, the museum's curator of naval history, told CNN.
    These vivid fabrics have also left their mark on the English language.
    "During wartime it was common practice to hoist the flag of the enemy, only to run up your own colors just before firing," Davey says.
    "The common phrase 'to show one's true colors' derives from this activity."
    With the rise of high-tech communication systems, ships today are not so reliant on such a messaging system.
    But one thing hasn't changed -- flying a flag embodies the nationality, ownership, and unique character of every vessel.
    We asked museum curators for a sneak peek at 10 of their most fascinating flags.