The complex symbolism of ribbons

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We come across ribbons every day, whether we are aware of it or not. We touch them when opening presents or when shopping for clothes and we see them on TV, where they can stand for different causes. Although they might seem simple, ribbons actually have complex symbolism behind them and they have been used for hundreds of years. They come in many shapes, sizes and forms – from printed birthday ribbons to extravagant rosettes and sashes. Here is a brief outline of the most common and popular ribbon symbols and what you should know before buying a specific design.

Seeing how beautiful and elegant ribbons can be, it’s not hard to imagine why, initially, they were used to denote aristocracy or a higher social status. Some of the richest people in Europe, men and women alike, used to adorn their clothes and wigs with colourful ribbons and the trend caught on all over the world. In addition, rosettes, a special ribbon type, were used to create decorations that were then given to members of society worthy of recognition, such as soldiers, war veterans and award winners. This tradition is still around today and there is no official ceremony without ribbons. This material is often preferred for events with a higher degree of formality and is used for official inaugurations – see the famous “ribbon cutting” ceremony.


In the 1990s, as a result of trading agreements, ribbons became more available worldwide, as factories from China and the East started sourcing ribbons to Europe and the United States. This way, ribbons turned from exclusive items into something that everyone could afford. The clothing industry was the one that made the most use out of these items, incorporating ribbons and bows into lingerie, dresses and other items of clothing. Generally, buyers believe that ribbons accents denote elegance, femininity, grace and playfulness. Some trends, such as the Lolita or Baby doll, are mostly based on the creative use of ribbons and big bows.


But ribbons aren’t only fashionable, ceremonial and decorative. For many years, they have been used, in various forms and colours, to represent awareness campaigns. The pink breast cancer awareness ribbon is probably the most famous one, because it is recognized all over the world. However, other ribbon colours can mean different things on a local or global scale. For example, the blue ribbon is mostly known as a symbol for arthritis and addiction recovery, but did you know that in Canada it is used to represent the national non-smoking week. The same colour ribbon symbolises the movement against bullying in the UK. Some awareness campaigns use a ribbon in a solid colour, such as black or green or red, but others use texts and patterns, such as the puzzle ribbon, which is used to represent the fight against autism. The initiators of the Stroke Awareness campaign in Australia choose the tartan ribbon, because they believed it showed the complexity of this health issue and its many causes.