The red ribbon — looped and folded into an inverted “V” shape — has been an international symbol bringing awareness to HIV and AIDS since the early 1990s.

How did that symbol originate?
By the late 1980s, AIDS had claimed many lives across the country. According to Roman Mars’ podcast, 99% Invisible, New York City artist Patrick O’Connell teamed with some friends to make art in response to the epidemic that had taken their friends and neighbors. They held events, including gallery shows, to bring attention to HIV and AIDS. By 1988, they had named this collective of artists Visual AIDS.

So the symbol originated with this collective?
Yes, but not until 1991. According to 99% Invisible, Marc Happel, a costume designer, came to a Visual AIDS meeting. He had seen several yellow ribbons tied around trees in support of military members serving in the Persian Gulf War. Visual AIDS, he thought, could replicate this strategy with ribbons people could wear on their lapels. The collective agreed with his suggestion, in part because the ribbon was flexible in what it could mean. As O’Connell told The New York Times in 1992:

The yellow ribbons from the Gulf War were still all around… We noticed that they could mean anything from ‘I care about young people who have gone overseas’ to ‘I support Bush.’ We wanted that kind of leeway, too, something that could mean ‘I hate this Government’ or just ‘I care about people with AIDS.’

 

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OK, so why red?
Yellow was taken, as it was used with the aforementioned Gulf War ribbons. The artists didn’t want to use pink or lavender, as the artists didn’t want anything that came off as exclusively gay, the New York Times reported. Red was already taken by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but they decided to make the ribbons red, anyway. Frank Moore, part of the original Visual AIDS team, told the New York Times that they picked red for “the connection to blood and the idea of passion — not only anger but love, like a valentine.”

So how did the red ribbons catch on? How did wearing them become a trend?
The group made several ribbons, which they would hand out with pamphlets to inform people about HIV/AIDS. But the ribbons did not become widely known (and fashionable) until the middle of 1991. Some members of Visual AIDS lobbied the organizers of the Tony Awards to include them in the ceremony, according to 99% Invisible:

On the night of the show—June 7, 1991—the Visual AIDS artists were watching with bated breath. They weren’t sure if anyone would be wearing the ribbons. One of the hosts, the actor Jeremy Irons, walked out on the stage with a red ribbon pinned to his lapel. The first award winner of the night, Daisy Eagan, star of “The Secret Garden,” wore a ribbon. Kevin Spacey wore a ribbon. Penn and Teller wore ribbons. By the end of the show, the celebrities not wearing ribbons stuck out. But no one explained the ribbons on-air. Rumor had it that the network threatened to go to commercial break if anyone tried to talk about AIDS. Turns out, this degree of mystery provided some incredibly good press, and the next day, newspapers were buzzing about these mysterious red ribbons and what they meant.

Within months, actors, musicians, and celebrities had “adopted the ribbon as a de rigueur evening accessory,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1995. Visual AIDS was no longer able to make all the ribbons that were requested, so the artists outsourced some of the work, according to the BBC. About 10,000 ribbons were made for an Oscars ceremony in the early ’90s, the BBC wrote. More than 100,000 ribbons were distributed at an AIDS benefit concert in London’s Wembley Stadium in honor of Freddie Mercury.

So what was the purpose of these ribbons? Were they meant to show support? Start conversations? Raise awareness?
All of the above. “This was a way to educate people in a non-combative way,” O’Connell told the BBC. At many schools and parishes, ribbon-making events were a way to explain and discuss HIV and AIDS. Nick Partridge, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust in the UK, said that the ribbons have helped people raise funds for HIV/AIDS efforts while also changing the perception about the disease, according to the BBC:

A number of people living with HIV really appreciate seeing other people wearing the red ribbon. They realize they’re not alone and recognize that the majority of people wearing them probably don’t have HIV themselves, and that sense of support and solidarity is very, very important.

There has been some criticism, that it is only a symbol. But symbols are important, and the way in which the red ribbon was embraced by community activists, doctors and researchers is a unifying emblem in what is a very disparate epidemic.

There has been criticism?
The ubiquitous nature of the ribbon in the early 1990s led to some burnout. Some activists saw a disconnect between the ribbons worn at the awards shows and the effects that HIV and AIDS had upon real-life people in everyday life. AIDS educator Ann Northrop told the New York Times in 1992:

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bush himself wear one someday — that’s how banal it’s become. The element that is missing in the ribbons is anger. People can be sympathetic from here to sunset but that won’t stop a quarantine.

For their part, the members of Visual AIDS said their expectation was not that the ribbon would change the world, per se, but that the symbol would be just that — a symbol. According to 99% Invisible, Happel said the conversation that these ribbons started would have been enough:

What we wanted to do was create something that a mother in Michigan could wear on the lapel of her blouse, and you know maybe her son was living in New York and living with AIDS, and she wanted to do something. I think it was just, it was also a symbol that we created that, that somebody could wear, and somebody might go up to them and say, “What is that? Why are you wearing that red ribbon?” And hopefully that person would say, “Here’s why.”

Rodger McFarlane, executive director of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS,  told the New York Times in 1992 that he saw the ribbon as more of a beginning, rather than an end:

I never want this to seem like anything more than visibility,” said . “The ribbon does not feed people or protect them from discrimination or provide leadership or a cure. But it is, at least, an easy first step.

O’Connell said the same thing about it being a “first step” when talking to the New York Times:

People want to say something, not necessarily with anger and confrontation all the time. This allows them. And even if it is only an easy first step, that’s great with me. It won’t be their last.

So what happened to the ribbon as a symbol?
By the mid-1990s, the red ribbons were no longer a staple at award shows. Gary Jabara of the Red Ribbon Foundation, an AIDS support group, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995 that the ribbon’s place in popular culture seemed to have shifted:

Our red ribbon became one of the most recognized logos around the world, second only to Coca-Cola. Now, they are sometimes perceived as a cliche… Only the die-hards and the activists are still wearing them.

But that doesn’t mean the red ribbons “went away.” They are still used as symbols for World AIDS Day, UNAIDS, and other efforts for HIV/AIDS. Visual AIDS didn’t copyright the symbol, which meant that anyone could use it. Other causes have adopted ribbons of different colors, and at the 2009 Grammys, the members of Death Cab for Cutie wore light blue ribbons to bring attention to “Auto-tuner abuse,” the Guardian reported.

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