A brief history of awareness ribbons and their colours

By | Wednesday 10 September 2008

Some time ago I added an awareness ribbon to the free sample cards on my Stitching Cards web site at the request of one of my customers. When I was designing the pattern I researched the background to these ribbons and found the history fascinating.

As far back as Shakespeare

awareness ribbon

The wearing of a coloured accessory as a symbol goes back as far as Shakespeare. He has Desdemona refer to an early version of the song “All round my hat, I wears a green willow” (Othello Act IV, scene 3). The song explains: “If anyone should ask, the reason why I wears it, tell them that my true love is far, far away”.

Ribbons become a symbol in the 1970s

Moving forward in time a yellow ribbon became the symbol for the wives of American hostages held in Iran in the 1970s. On a CBS broadcast, Penelope Laingen, wife of a hostage in Iran, was interviewed outside her home in Bethesda, Maryland. “It just came to me,” she said, “why don’t I tie a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree.”  The idea caught on and when the American hostages returned home from Iran in 1981 they were welcomed by a multitude of yellow ribbons.

The hit song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon…”

The source of Penelope’s inspiration was a popular song called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.” It was recorded by some thirty different vocalists in the late 1970s and sold millions of copies. The song is the story of a convict on a bus going home after three years in prison. He tells the bus driver that he has written to his sweetheart asking her to tie a yellow ribbon on a roadside oak tree if she will have him back. The driver relates the story to other passengers and as the bus nears the tree everyone is on the edge of their seats. The convict covers his eyes, unable to bear the possible rejection. Then a cheer goes up and he looks to see the tree covered with yellow ribbons.

A red ribbon for AIDS

In 1991 yellow ribbons were resurrected for soldiers fighting the Gulf War. AIDS activists looked at these and said “What about something for our boys dying here at home?” They chose a bright red ribbon because “it’s the color of passion”. Actor Jeremy Irons wore a looped red ribbon during the Tony awards and it caught the attention of the national press.

A pink ribbon for breast cancer

A few months later the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation handed out pink ribbons to participants in its New York City race for breast cancer survivors.

In 1992 a collaboration between Self magazine and the cosmetics giant Estée Lauder saw the launch of a pink ribbon as an international symbol for breast cancer awareness.

The year of the Ribbon

Awareness ribbons rapidly became a must have item for numerous charitable organisation and the New York Times declared 1992 as “The year of the Ribbon”.

Some other awareness ribbon colours are:

Black ribbon – POW-MIA remembrance
Blue ribbon – sex trafficking and slavery awareness
Brown ribbon – end chain email
Gold ribbon – childhood cancer awareness
Gray ribbon – diabetes awareness
Green ribbon – environmental protection
Indigo ribbon – targeted individuals
Orange Ribbon – animal protection awareness
Periwinkle ribbon – eating disorder awareness
Pink and blue ribbon – pro-life
Purple ribbon – domestic violence awareness
Silver ribbon – brain disorders
Teal ribbon – ovarian cancer
Violet ribbon – Hodgkin’s lymphoma
White ribbon – violence against woman

Related links:

The above list gives a few of the causes that use awareness ribbons. A longer list can be found on the Wikipedia web site.

The background to the yellow ribbon tradition can be found at the American Folk Law Centre web site.

A free prick and stitch awareness ribbon pattern is available from the Stitching Cards web site.

3 thoughts on “A brief history of awareness ribbons and their colours

  1. barbarac

    This ‘yellow ribbon song’ entry of the ’70s is interesting to me, because when I was in the Guides around 1950 there was a popular song, or maybe it was a current campfire song……
    ” Around her (head? hat?) she wears a yellow ribbon, she wears it in the winter and the merry month of May-hay-hay, and if you ask her why she always wears it, she says it’s for her lover who is far, far, away……” It seems to be another link in the storychain , nearer to the Shakespeare version. Does anyone else remember this song?

  2. Edwin

    In Shakespeare’s Othello Act IV, scene 3, Desdemona sung the “willow” song. i found out that this willow song is not the “All round my hat, I wears a green willow” song that you mentioned. can you please help me in this? or maybe refer me to some place that will clearify it.
    i’m writing a report about it.


  3. DJ Post author

    Hi Edwin,

    The song is believed to be an early version of “All round my hat”. Although it does not mention a hat it has some other elements such as a garland of green willow and separated lovers.

    You can read Othello – by William Shakespeare Act IV. Scene III at:


    The following is an extract:

    [Singing] The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
    Sing all a green willow:
    Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
    Sing willow, willow, willow:
    The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans;
    Sing willow, willow, willow;
    Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones;
    Lay by these:–


    Sing willow, willow, willow;
    Prithee, hie thee; he’ll come anon:–


    Sing all a green willow must be my garland.
    Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve,-
    Nay, that’s not next.–Hark! who is’t that knocks?

    It’s the wind.

    [Singing] I call’d my love false love; but what
    said he then?
    Sing willow, willow, willow:
    If I court moe women, you’ll couch with moe men!
    So, get thee gone; good night Ate eyes do itch;
    Doth that bode weeping?

    There is a version of “All Round my Hat” at:


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