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Tied up in causes Ribbons are fashionable statements


Have a cause? Get a ribbon.

You may be leading the charge against murder, mayhem and deadly disease, but if it's not color-coordinated, it's invisible.

Ribbons of many hues, most perceptible on the lapels and bosoms of politically correct celebrities on televised awards programs, are high concept, tasteful and to the point.

One hitch: What is the point?

"I think it's getting very confusing to people," says Andrew A. Barasda, executive director of the Health Education Resource Organization (HERO) in Baltimore, where simple red ribbons are available free for the asking.

Red ribbons are synonymous with AIDS awareness -- except when Mothers Against Drunk Driving tie them on car antennae.

The color purple represents the toll urban violence takes on black youth -- except when it speaks for the Michigan chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children or the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

But purple ribbons worn in protest of battered women are not to be confused with white ribbons, worn on college campuses to protest all violence against women.

A pink ribbon signifies the battle against breast cancer -- so far.

Thank you very much, Tony Orlando, for tying that yellow ribbon "Round the Ole Oak Tree" in 1973. Americans, starved for unifying symbols that rise above the cacophony of national discourse, will never escape your Gordian knot.

It all started with that infamous yellow ribbon of musical yore, which became a symbol of liberty during the Iranian hostage crisis. The ribbon, (withstanding an unsuccessful challenge by bright orange), was revived during the Persian Gulf war as a satin show of solidarity.

Soon afterward, the ribbon was brilliantly co-opted in 1991 by Visual AIDS, a non-profit coalition of New York artists and art professionals who conceived of the simple red loop as a way to solidify and strengthen the struggle against HIV.

As a creation of the Ribbon Project, the red ribbon debuted nationally on the 1991 Tony Awards show, viewed by millions. The understated little symbol generated an instant cachet. Soon, it became an indispensable accessory on network and cable awards programs, a phenomenon that John Weir scathingly dismissed as "evening gown activism" in the Advocate, a national gay publication.

When the Academy Awards aired in March, viewers were caught in ribbon gridlock. Red and pink got tied up with deep purple, the color chosen by actress Sheryl Lee Ralph and Robert L. Johnson, president of the Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable TV network, to mourn the violent deaths of African-American urban youths.

"Every movement starts with some sort of single moment," Mr. Johnson says. In that sense, the purple ribbon resembles other seminal events in the civil rights movement, he says.

"I think this ribbon causes people to start talking about this issue among themselves. . . . It puts the issue back on top of our !B minds," says Mr. Johnson, whose purple ribbon is permanently affixed to his tuxedo.

The purple ribbon bows -- plain for men, crystal-studded for women -- are made by "a little lady who has nothing to do and loves working with her hands," Ms. Ralph says by phone from BET's Washington headquarters.

Expect a sea of purple and red when the Essence magazine awards program airs on CBS May 29, an Essence spokeswoman says.

There's room for all ribbons, says Anne Kasper, director of the Campaign for Women's Health, a project of the Older Women's League national advocacy group. Different ribbons don't compete for the public's attention and dollars, she says.

"Breast cancer for women is as important an issue as AIDS," says Ms. Kasper. "This is not a country that needs to limit itself to one or two issues that get attention. We have the capability to pay attention to and always have paid attention to a wide range of issues."

While gaining recognition as symbolic statements, ribbons have also become an effective marketing tool. Christmas ornaments, T-shirts, dinner plates and brooches, all graced with a red ribbon, are sold to raise money for AIDS service organizations.

Lifesongs for AIDS, a local charity, has raised $10,000 selling designer James Arpad's rhinestone ribbon pins for $100 and $50. Mr. Arpad directs all earnings from the handsome brooch to the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS.

Bergdorf Goodman's spring weekend catalog features a $10 red ribbon mug. Proceeds go to the foundation as well.

Ribbons "have become a real industry," says Mr. Barasda of HERO. "Even though it's nice to see [the ribbons] more, it really does in a way defeat the whole original intention to call awareness to the disease and the impact of it," he says.

Propelled by Self magazine and Estee Lauder cosmetics, the pink ribbon has become a highly visible emblem of breast cancer awareness and also a marketing tool. Last October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the magazine and cosmetic company sent more than half a million ribbons to Lauder cosmetic counters and readers.

Earlier this year, Tiffany & Co. promoted a $100 gift set that included its namesake perfume and a silk Jacquard scarf with a pink ribbon print that honors the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. In mid-April, Macy's and I. Magnin began selling pink ribbon jewelry pins in addition to their enamel red ribbon pins. The stores promised to dedicate a portion of the proceeds to their designated causes.

"I cannot overstate how powerful the AIDS ribbon was in establishing this sort of loop on your lapel as a statement about something," says Nancy Smith, executive editor of Self magazine. "We can all do buttons -- 'I Like Ike,' right? -- [but ribbons] are so understated and at some level it's a kind of secret message. It's so subtle; it gives a sense of solidarity."


Ribbon variations cry out for a fleet of semaphore decoders to lead us through a rainbow coalition of causes.

The Rainforest Action Network distributes green ribbons to protest Hollywood's use of tropical plywood for movie sets. But green ribbons, signifying life, were also once used by the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to make its case. Now the group emphasizes mourning with black ribbons, which are also worn to protest apartheid in South Africa.

Hybrids abound: Green and white are the colors of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.

Gold, blue and white ribbon bows stand for crime victims' rights. Employees of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County wear purple, white and black ribbon bows. In March, secretarial and clerical workers in Anne Arundel County wore red, white and blue ribbons to protest budget cuts.

At a recent conference on human relations in Carroll County, participants wore plaid ribbons symbolizing unity.

Multicolored "rainbow" ribbons are worn in remonstrance of civil unrest.

Blue ribbons, promoted locally by Landmark Homes construction company and the Fraternal Order of Police Auxiliary Lodge 3 as a show of support for the police force, are also a reminder of child abuse by the National Committee for the prevention of Child Abuse.

The Annapolis-based People Against Child Abuse (PACA) reluctantly adopted the blue ribbon after phasing out the yellow ribbon when it became Operation Desert Storm's unifying emblem.

Last year, to make the symbolic transition, PACA tied blue and yellow ribbons together.

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