The red ribbon, typically a short, red piece of ribbon folded into a loop, is an international symbol of AIDS awareness. A red ribbon pinned to clothing is a statement of support and expression of solidarity with people living with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers. It is also meant to raise public awareness about safer sex, and to decrease discrimination against people infected with HIV.
Yellow Ribbon for Those Gone to War
In the 1830s, the song “All Around My Hat” described a man who accessorizes his hat with green willow “for my true love who’s far, far away” after his beloved is sentenced to exile from Ireland to Australia after being convicted of theft. In the early 1900s, the yellow ribbon replaced green willow in songs such as “’Round Her Neck She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” with lyrics about a woman who wore the ribbon in remembrance of her male lover “who was far, far away” (the actual age of this song is in dispute, and may be a centuries-old British ballad that pre-dates “All Around My Hat”).
In 1973, the yellow ribbon was once again popularized by Tony Orlando and Dawn’s hit song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.” In the song, the yellow ribbon signifies romantic fidelity by a woman for a man who had finished serving time in prison. In 1979, it was a symbol for those Americans held captive by the Iranian Government in the US embassy in Tehran, and has continued to function as a symbol representing remembrance of American soldiers in every war since that time.
Red Ribbon for Those with AIDS
The red ribbon as a symbol of remembrance first came to public awareness in 1991 through the Red Ribbon Project of the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus in New York. The artists in the caucus were inspired by the yellow ribbon, and chose red for its connection to blood and the idea of passion. Visual AIDS, Broadway Cares, and Equity Fights AIDS established the custom of a red ribbon on the lapel and front of the shirt or blouse as a way of signifying support for people living with HIV/AIDS. In 2000, Black and Blue (Montreal’s premier Circuit event and AIDS fundraiser), 15,000 participants at the Sunday main event walked through a giant AIDS ribbon made up of thousands of red and white candles on the floor the Olympic Stadium, creating an interactive aesthetic experience between participants and the ribbon, as they made their way to the festivities.
The red ribbon is worn on World AIDS Day on December 1 to demonstrate concern about HIV and AIDS and to remind others of the need for their support.
Multiplicity of Ribbons
The popularity of both the yellow and red ribbons has led to a multiplicity of single-loop ribbons that are color-coded to signify any number of groups and causes. For example, a black ribbon is used internationally in several different contexts, usually in reference to a tragedy, calamity, or terrorist attack. The turquoise ribbon is used in the USA to signify solidarity with Native Americans, and the pink ribbon is an international symbol of breast cancer awareness.
Elwood, William. Power in the Blood: A Handbook on AIDS, Politics, and Communication. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1999.
Parsons, Gerald E. “How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol.” Folklife Center News. Summer 1991, Vol. XIII, #3, 9-11.
Parsons, Gerald E. “Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Tradition.” Folklife Center News. Summer 1981, Vol. IV, #2.
Singhal, Arvind and Everett M. Rogers. Combating AIDS: Communication Strategies in Action. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2003.