When Chris Vance, the chairman of the state Republican Party, pinned on an orange ribbon during a rally opposing the confirmation of Christine Gregoire as Washington’s governor, he could have been signaling his support for cultural diversity, calling attention to the tragedy of world hunger or taking a stand against lupus.
He was doing none fo these, of course.
Vance and several other Republican lawmakers wore orange ribbons to make the connection between this state’s close gubernatorial contest and the fraudulent Ukrainian election that resulted in nationwide protests last fall. In November, supporters of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko took to the strees of Kiev en masse, waving banners and the orange flags of his party.
“There’s a real sense that what happened in the Ukraine happened here,” Vance said in a recent phone intervview. About the protests and the subsequent second election in that nation, Vance said, “We’re hoping we can do the same thing here, in a more civilized fashion.”.
Whether or not Vance and his fellow protesters, many of whom bore orange balloons, succeed in getting the revote they desire, they will certainly have sent a message, even if it wasn’t a clear one at first glance. With the increasing identification of colors with political or social causes, it’s a challenge to find a color that hasn’t been adopted by one organization or another.
“We’re using color coding and color symbolism now to an extent we never have,” said Margaret Walch, director of the New York-based Color Asssociation of the United States, a nearly 90-year old color forecasting organization. The facts would seem to bear her out: Almost every color has multiple causes.
More than 500 years ago, England was racked by a 30-year civil war between the House of Lancaster, represented by a red rose, and the House of York, represented by a white rose. A similar contemporary polarity might be the concept of the red and blue states, an entirely media-created visual metaphor – neither party has officially embraced red or blue as its defining color, according to Republican Vance and Paul Berendt, the chairman of the state Democratic Party.
Like the red state/blue state phenomenon, many of American culture’s most well-knwon color-cause associations have risen to prominence only in recent history:
THE YELLOW MILITARY RIBBON
Perhaps the oldest of the bunch, the yellow ribbon (seen these days on cars and bedecking the I-5 overpass near Fort Lewis in support of faraway soldiers) can trace its history back at least 50 years.
The Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center uncovered a folk tale from that time telling of a released convict whose family was to tie a ribbon to a tree in their front yard as a way of letting him know whether or not they wanted him back.
That tale morphed into the popular 1970s song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree,” which inspired Penne Laingen to do just that in her yard in 1979 as a symbol of hope that her husband, Ambassador Bruce Laingen, held during the Iraninan hostage crisis, would return home safely. Thus, a national craze was spawned. The folklife center’s Web site notes that there’s no real evidence to support the commonly held believe that the yellow ribbon has its roots in the Civil War.
THE RED HIV/AIDS RIBBON
In 1991, an offshoot of New York organization Visual AIDs decided to create a symbol to indicate support for people living and coping with AIDS and HIV.
Capitalizing on the popularity of the yellow-ribbon campaign backing soldiers serving in the first Iraq war, the group decided on a red ribbon, to indicate “passion – not only anger, but love, like a valentine,” according to Visual AIDS’ Web site.
Actor Jeremy Irons wore a red AIDS ribbon while hosting the 1991 Tony Awards ceremony, pusing the symbol into the limelight and making it a cultural icon.
THE PINK BREAST CANCER RIBBON
This can be traced to the early ’90s as well, according to the national organization Breast Cancer Action, when 68-year-old Charlotte Haley began distributing handmade peach-colored ribbons and urging people to wear them to “wake up our legislators and America” to the need for more cancer funding.
Soon after, Estee Lauder and Self magazine came knocking, hoping to use Haley’s ribbon, but she refused on the grounds that they were too commercial. Of course, that merely meant that Lauder and Self would create their own ribbon, the current pink one, chosen because the color is “soothing, comforting and healing”; Haley’s peach ribbon was soon forgotten.
Those overwhelmed by the rainbow of colored ribbons might do well to ask, “Why color? Why now?”
The Color Association’s color-devoted director, Walch, has a partial answer: “Color is the first thing you see..It’s often used as an identification for people you don’t know, because it’s so visible. Any color has high visibility.”
That might seem self-evident, but it’s worth considering. In this age of information overload, colors provide a simple, easy-to-parse identifier for a message.
All it takes is one look to see and understand a red ribbon. But things are more complicated now that several causes are connected with many colors. The only recourse is inventiveness. For instance, to show support for those coping with autism, pin on a multicolored jigsaw-puzzle ribbon (the puzzle represents the complex mystery of the condition).