It's all in the wrist

Britney's is red, Rooney's is blue and Tom Hanks has at least five. Tim Luckhurst discovers why we're wearing our hearts up our sleeves
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The Independent US

Skirt lengths, hairstyles and trouser widths may be as cyclical as the seasons, but when it comes to expressions of ideological sympathy, fashion is, it seems, capable of invention as well as repetition. Young idealists of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties wore badges. The Aids generation adopted the coloured ribbon, so creating a trend that eventually encompassed ribbons for every cause, from breast cancer (pink) to paganism (white ribbon embossed with a red pentagram.) Today, the wristband has taken over from both.

Skirt lengths, hairstyles and trouser widths may be as cyclical as the seasons, but when it comes to expressions of ideological sympathy, fashion is, it seems, capable of invention as well as repetition. Young idealists of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties wore badges. The Aids generation adopted the coloured ribbon, so creating a trend that eventually encompassed ribbons for every cause, from breast cancer (pink) to paganism (white ribbon embossed with a red pentagram.) Today, the wristband has taken over from both.

Madonna's enthusiasm for wearing the red string bracelet that is traditional among Kabbalists may have had something to do with popularising the trend to, literally, wear opinions on the wrist. So might Jennifer Aniston's penchant for wearing a version by the designer Dillon Rogers that reads simply "delicious". But the wristband is more closely associated with issue-based campaigns than ancient Jewish mysticism or expensive jewellery. John Kerry wore one at the Democratic convention. President Bush has one as well. That much he has in common with Bono, Bruce Willis, Angelina Jolie and Sheryl Crow.

The wristband they share is a yellow number emblazoned with the words "Live Strong". It was launched this summer by the cyclist Lance Armstrong, after he won a record-breaking sixth consecutive victory in the Tour de France. Several athletes wore them to compete during the summer's Athens Olympics. Armstrong, who survived cancer in his 20's, uses the bands as a fundraising tool for his Lance Armstrong Foundation, which supports cancer sufferers and survivors.

In this country, the "Live Strong" bands started to take off more as a fashion accessory than an expression of ideological commitment. The fact that they were produced for Armstrong by Nike did nothing to reduce their appeal. Last month, examples were being offered for sale on the internet auction site eBay for as much as 20 times their official price. But with the launch this week of the Government-backed blue wristband campaign to support Anti-Bullying Week, it became clear that the wristband has entered the mainstream of British culture as an ideological statement. It is the accepted contemporary symbol of solidarity and is used to promote awareness campaigns about subjects, including African famine and world peace.

The trend may have started with the friendship bracelet, a woven band of six separate colours of embroidery thread, each selected to represent a different letter in the word "friend" that has long been popular among supporters of the Peace Pals Projects. But the wearing of wristbands was normalised during the 1990s when they were first widely used as combined admission passes and identity bracelets at raves, concerts and festivals - a purpose for which they remain invaluable.

It is easy to understand the declining popularity of badges. Made immensely popular by the CND symbol that first appeared in 1958 on the legendary Aldermaston March, they were always inconvenient little objects. Unless stuck to a bag or coat, they had a tendency to end up in the washing machine, where their colours faded out of recognition after a single wash. That happened to at least five of my favourite 1970s Anti Nazi League badges.

Ribbons were less likely to fade and for several years became the accoutrement, without which it was uncool to appear in progressive society. But they had disadvantages too. Like badges, they had to be attached to an item of clothing, not the person, and though symbolic of commitment, they did not make for easy colour co-ordination.

Wearing stylish symbols has always appealed to the young and politically aware. That original CND badge, designed by Royal College of Arts graduate Gerald Holtom, was produced in materials varying from tin to glazed ceramics. The first examples, made from white clay with the symbol painted on in black, were distributed with a note explaining that they would be one of the few human artefacts to survive a nuclear inferno.

That claim cannot be made for the modern plastic or rubber wristband or bracelet. But they are practical, as well as chic. Bands are increasingly used in projects like Child Safe, a scheme designed to reunite lost children with their parents by recording the mother or father's mobile telephone number on a wristband worn by the child. Pubs and clubs in Derbyshire have experimented with allocating wristbands to young drinkers who have proved that they are old enough to purchase alcohol. Some allergy sufferers record their sensitivities on wristbands to alert doctors.

At the practical level, design has, of course, benefited from use in hospitals, where bands have long been used for purposes from identifying new-born babies to tagging the dead. Ultra-contemporary in its capacity to combine fashion with support for a good cause, the wristband may be considered particularly advanced since it allows the wearer, literally, to wear his heart on his sleeve. Prominence may not be as great as a badge or ribbon worn on the breast, but there is a lot to be said for subtlety and possibly even a reduced risk of the "here, hippie" taunts that once greeted CND badge-wearers or the homophobic tripe directed at early adopters of the Aids ribbon.

WHO'S HOPPING ON THE BAND-WAGON?

WHITE: A symbol of the recently launched MakePovertyHistory campaign to eradicate Third World debt. Supermodel Claudia Schiffer wore the bands to a meeting with Chancellor Gordon Brown this month. She was joined by Big Brother star Davina McCall and comedian Lenny Henry and his actress wife Dawn French. Musicians recording the new version of Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas? also wore them.

YELLOW: A yellow wristband bearing the words "Live Strong" is the symbol of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Armstrong, a cancer survivor who has won the Tour de France six times, launched them to help cancer patients and support cancer research. The Nike-produced items have become fashionable on both sides of the Atlantic. President Bush and John Kerry were both spotted sporting them.

BLUE: Being worn by stars including the footballer Rio Ferdinand and Olympic champion Kelly Holmes in support of the Government's drive to reduce bullying in schools. Launching anti-bullying week, the schools minister Stephen Twigg invited pupils to wear the bands to make "a visible commitment that they are not prepared to tolerate bullying".

MULTI-COLOURED: Friendship bracelets consisting of six strands of embroidery thread are the symbol of the international peace movement.

PINK: An alternative to the pink ribbon as a symbol of the battle against breast cancer.

GOLDEN DELICIOUS: A golden leather wristband sporting the word "Delicious" is marketed as a fashion accessory. Friends star Jennifer Aniston has been spotted wearing one. No charitable or ideological associations.

ABSTINENCE: Bracelets and wristbands carrying the slogan "worth waiting for" have become common among members of America's increasingly popular campaigns for sexual abstinence before marriage.

RED: A red string wristband is the symbol of Kabbalah, a mystical offshoot of Judaism. Fans include Madonna, Britney Spears and Roseanne Barr.

Ed Caesar

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