Got a cause? There's a ribbon for it

Solidarity/ lapel statement
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IT started with the red ribbon, worn on millions of lapels in sympathy with the fight against Aids. Now the ribbon has become the Nineties symbol of compassion of all kinds, available in every colour to represent causes from animal rights to breast cancer.

Rainbow ribbons were worn last week by campaigners who went to court against the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. Purple ribbons have been adopted by protesters against live animal exportation, partly in memory of the dead campaigner Jill Phipps. Even established charities such as Oxfam have got in on the act, using black lapel ribbons to mourn the suffering in Rwanda.

"Every age has its own specific way of allowing people to identify with groups," says Emma Peskin of Stonewall, the lesbian and gay lobby group that issues the rainbow "Equality Ribbon". "In the 1970s it was badges. In the Eighties it was T-shirts carrying slogans like 'Ban the Bomb'. Now it is ribbons."

Stonewall has been distributing its ribbons for two years, through demonstrations, vigils and rallies like the annual Pride festival in London. Rainbow ribbons were used by churches in the Isle of Dogs, East London, last May to represent their campaign against the British National Party. But Stonewall adopted the colours because they are "an international symbol of the struggle for gay and lesbian equality", said Ms Peskin. "Rainbow flags are flown outside gay pubs, for example. It's recognised by those who know."

So when three gay men and a lesbian woman appeared in the High Court on Wednesday in an attempt to get the armed forces ban overturned, they all wore Stonewall's ribbons. So did their lawyers and supporters. There was even a rainbow tablecloth at the press conference.

Ribbons have been sold to Stonewall's 3,000 financial supporters at pounds 1 a time, but they are also worn by those who give little more than emotional support. "They are powerful because they enable people to make a statement of their own beliefs without demanding too much of them," says Ms Peskin. "In the last six weeks the armed forces campaign has attracted the attention of people who were not aware that these things were happening, but who now want to express support. We're not asking them all to take a case to court or stand for Parliament. They just have to sympathise with the cause and want to see change to some of the injustices we face. We're interested in raising awareness, so if people want to wear ribbons and do nothing else, that's fine."

Millions of pink ribbons have been issued in the United States by the giant cosmetics company Estee Lauder in support of breast cancer charities. "A coloured ribbon worn on the lapel has become a symbol of awareness," says a company statement explaining why it gave out half a million pink ones at cosmetics counters in department stores across Britain last October, to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Cards given out with them told women where they could get help and advice. The exercise will be repeated this year.

"I hope it will go the way of the Aids campaign, where you see people wearing ribbons throughout the year," said Carol Pugh of the breast cancer charity Breakthrough, which will participate in the Estee Lauder scheme. In 1993, Breakthrough issued 40,000 of its own purple ribbons through the Laura Ashley chain of shops and Marie Claire magazine. "They sold brilliantly," said Carol Pugh. For a relatively small charity like hers the attraction was that ribbons were cheaper and easier to assemble than badges; lengths of ribbon were bought in bulk and volunteers spent hours folding the fragments into a loop. "It's so simple. All it needs is a piece of ribbon and a safety pin."

Yellow ribbons have long been used in America to remember servicemen overseas. In this country they have been used in support of John McCarthy and his fellow hostages, soldiers in the Gulf war and, recently, by those campaigning to free Lee Clegg, the paratrooper jailed for life after shooting dead an Ulster girl in a car driven by a joyrider.

The looped red Aids ribbon was invented in New York in 1991 by the arts group Visual Aids, and worn at that year's Tony award ceremony by the actor Jeremy Irons. By 1993 they had become compulsory attire for US celebrities, with enamelled or even bejewelled versions.

In this country, more than eight million Aids ribbons have been distributed over the past three years by a London-based charity, Red Ribbon International. "It's so visual," says the charity's director Mike Campling. "So non-threatening. User friendly. It's non-aggressive."

One man who disagrees is the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, who famously refused to wear a red ribbon on a recording of the quiz show Have I Got News For You, which was being shown on World Aids Day. Instead he wore a cut-out cardboard "L" on his lapel to represent leukaemia, a disease from which a close relative had just died. "What I disliked was the compulsory nature of the red ribbon at media events," said Hislop. "There are other causes as important as deserving of media attention in this country."

He believes the red ribbon was promoted so strongly because Aids had given the first experience of death to a generation of media thirtysomethings. "If you look at the figures, it is hysterical that eight million people should have declared public support against a disease that kills so few people. It's wildly disproportionate. The only comparable symbol is the poppy, which is worn every year to commemorate two world wars in which millions died."

But the passion for ribbon-wearing shows no sign of abating. At the funeral for the victims of the Oklahoma bombing in April, President Clinton wore ribbons of white, yellow, purple and blue, to represent the dead, the missing, the children and the state. Pale blue ribbons were given out at the first screening of the gay director Derek Jarman's Aids film Blue at the Edinburgh Festival in 1993, and worn by many to his funeral. Sinn Fein uses green ribbons to promote its Saoirse campaign for the release of Irish political prisoners, and Oxfam used black ribbons at a vigil for Rwanda in London last May.

Mark Glover, of the campaign group Respect for Animals, ag-reed that ribbons have come to represent causes "in quite a dignified way". His group chose purple because it represented justice to the ancient Romans, and because of its associations with death: they were mourning the death of Jill Phipps when the ribbons were introduced. The response was "astonishing", he said, with tens of thousands sold through the group's mailing list and orders from schools. The ribbon was originally bought from florists, but is now imported from Italy. "We've got through miles of the stuff," said Mr Glover.