As 1 December marks World Aids Day, red ribbons will again be seen on the lapels of celebrities and ordinary people alike. A symbol of "Aids awareness", the significance of this new phenomena has brought controversy as well as understanding of issues around Aids. So will you be wearing one? Here's some information to help you make up your mind.

where does it come from?

In 1991, at a meeting of the Visual Aids artists caucus in Manhattan, New York, someone suggested the creation of a public artwork that would signify support for people living with HIV and Aids. At that time the Gulf war was being waged and another member of the group cited the tradition of tying yellow ribbons around trees in remembrance of soldiers overseas. "What about something for our boys dying at home?" he asked. The director of Visual Aids, Patrick O'Connell, explained how red was chosen because it "is the colour of passion". Simple and easily identifiable, the folded length of red ribbon in the shape of an A was, he added, "something anybody can do from the kindergarten up."

who wore it first?

The red ribbon's television debut was on the lapel of British actor Jeremy Irons. He explained how wearing one meant that you showed concern for people with Aids at the Tony Awards, Broadway's biggest theatrical award night, in June 1991. After the Tonys, Visual Aids joined forces with other Aids charities in the field of entertainments (Broadway Cares and Equity Fights Aids), in order to establish the Ribbon Project. The idea rapidly caught on - celebrities at the Oscar ceremony that year donned the red tag. Simon Garfield, who tells the story of the evolution of the red ribbon in his book The End of Innocence, explains that "within months they were de rigeur at every awards ceremony, every tribute. Then you looked around on the street and those red loops seemed to be everywhere, the new symbol of compassion and remembrance, the new poppy, the new peace logo."

who wears ribbons?

Elizabeth Taylor was one of the first starry names to campaign for the propagation of the ribbon followed by people like Princess Diana, Liza Minnelli, Richard Gere, George Michael, Pete Sampras and Jodie Foster. Even the wife of the president, Barbara Bush, wore a red ribbon at the Republican Convention of 1992, causing controversy when she took it off before joining her husband on the podium.

who doesn't wear ribbons?

Private Eye editor lan Hislop wrote a piece about how at the BAFTA Awards there were plates of ribbons on the table where he sat. "Having just lost a close relative to a disease that is equally incurable though much less fashionable, I decided not to conform. I wanted to know whether one could act independently in these matters. It is not frothing homophobia or cynical callousness, but simply an irritation at yet another demonstration of the monopoly of the disease in the media via the worlds of entertainment, art and sport." Some said the red ribbon had become a victim of its own success. Nick Partridge of the Terrence Higgins Trust: "When people see celebrities wearing red ribbons they may feel quite wrongly that Aids charities are hogging the public sympathy and funds and they may be less likely to give money and support."

so why do some people actively disapprove of red ribbons?

The Mail on Sunday ran a feature on red ribbons which described the "tyranny of the Aids pride badge," asserting that "ribbon-wielding zealots" were responsible for "moral blackmail". On the other side of the fence, some gay activists accuse those who do chose to wear the red ribbon of simply adopting a worthy "fashion accessory". They say it might be an easy way of alleviating guilt. "lt's easy to wear a red ribbon," Peter Tatchell commented, "but I'd much rather people worked to get legislation outlawing discrimination against people with HIV." Red ribbon founder Patrick O'Connell responded to criticism: "l don't think these celebrities are hypocrites ... One doesn't actually know who is writing the million dollar cheques, but I do see a huge amount of people throughout the country doing fundraisers, and guess what, that's what they're good at - they're not good at finding the cure for Aids."

when did the ribbon first come to Britain?

The ribbon was first seen in the UK at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert in 1992 at the behest of Andrew Butterfield. He used the occasion to found Red Ribbon International, a charity that manufactures and promotes the ribbons in the UK and Europe. He fell out with Patrick O'Connell and many other British HlV/Aids charities when, controversially, he tried to obtain copyright and make the ribbon a trademark despite its ethos of free availability.

so where does the money go?

Ribbons are sold wholesale to organisations who use them as a fundraising tool. They are rarely sold directly to the public. As in flag days, people are free to make donations if they pick one up. In 1993, the annual turnover of RRI was pounds 79,500.

what about other colour ribbons?

The huge success of the red ribbon has led other charities to adopt ribbons for a whole gamut of causes. Pink ribbons, pioneered by Estee Lauder, show sympathy for those who have died of breast cancer. Green ribbons have been used as tokens of support for IRA prisoners as well as anti- pollution campaigns. Those against live animal exports wear black ribbons. Deep blue loops denote concern about child abuse.