The ribbon

The ribbon has been the universal symbol of awareness and support since 1979 when Penney Laingen, wife of one of the men held prisoners during the Iran hostage crisis, decided to use a yellow ribbon to show support for her husband and the other hostages. Its history goes back much further: it is mentioned in five-hundred-year-old poems, in military marches and in folk songs, even in films. But Penney Laingen used it for first time publicly as a silent voice of support.

A decade later, the activist art group Visual AIDS turned the ribbon bright red, looped it, spruced it up and sent it onto the national stage during the Tony Awards, pinned to the chest of actor Jeremy Irons. Again, a symbol of awareness and support.

Overnight, every charity organisation had to have one. The ubiquity of the symbol was such that even the New York Times declared 1992 “The Year of the Ribbon”.

From peach to pink

Charlotte Hayley, who had battled breast cancer, introduced the concept of a peach coloured breast cancer awareness ribbon. She attached them to cards saying, “The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is 1.8 billion US dollars, and only 5 percent goes to cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.

Haley was strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth. Haley distributed thousands of these cards.

The peach colored ribbon of Hayley aroused interest from Alexandra Penney, editor in chief of Self magazine, who was working on Self magazine‘s 1992 National Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue. She saw the initiative to adapt to Hayley’s idea by working with her. But Hayley rejected the offer saying that Self’s initiative was too commercial.

Unable to use the Hayley’s peach ribbon for legal reasons, Self magazine and other people interested on promoting the breast cancer awareness with a ribbon a symbol decided to go pink.

“The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is 1.8 billion US dollars, and only 5 percent goes to cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon”

Charlotte Hayley

The first pink ribbons

First on the scene was the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Komen had been handing out bright pink visors to breast cancer survivors running in its Race for the Cure since late 1990. In fall 1991, mere months after Irons’ electrifying appearance, the foundation gave out pink ribbons to every participant in its New York City race. This first use of the ribbon, though, was for Komen just a detail in the larger and more important story of the race. To really break out, the pink ribbon would need a situation in which the ribbon was the event.

…it is not surprising, given their commitment to breast cancer marketing, that the Susan J. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation was the first breast cancer organization to latch on to the idea by distributing pink ribbons to every participant in its New York City Race for the Cure (they also, later, tried unsuccessfully to trademark the ribbon)

Pink Ribbons, Inc., by Samantha King

A well-known symbol

The cosmetics industry got on board in 1991 to promote breast cancer awareness with the help of Evelyn Lauder of Estée Lauder Cosmetics and Alexander Penney, the editor-in-chief of Self magazine. When Evelyn Lauder and Alexander Penney were working on their breast cancer awareness promotion, they liked Charlotte Hayley’s concept of giving ribbons to promote the support of breast cancer awareness. Lauder, Penney, and Hayley worked together to come up with the pink ribbon symbol for breast cancer awareness.

Next, Penney learned it was impractical to pin a ribbon onto each cover of Self , as she had hoped, so she called Evelyn Lauder, of Estee Lauder Companies to ask for help. “Lets give these out at Estee Lauder counters,” was her enthousiastic response.

Self magazine, October 2002 page 30

A few months later, Self magazine, which was planning its second annual National Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue, with Evelyn Lauder, senior corporate vice president at Estee Lauder, as guest editor, decided to create a ribbon that would be distributed at the company’s cosmetics counters across the country. At first, according to Fernandez, the magazine approached Haley asking her to work with them on the plan and, as part of the deal, relinquish the concept of the ribbon. Haley refused, claiming (correctly as it turns out) that she feared the commercialization of her approach, and so Self, in consultation with its lawyers, settled on a different color: pink…

Pink Ribbons, Inc., by Samantha King

Penney wrote in the October 1992 issue of Self magazine:

I’m sure you’ve seen the red ribbon symbolizing AIDS awareness on lots of lapels. Now there’s a pink ribbon for “Breast Cancer Awareness”. We’ll be collecting signatures from all of you who write us for a ribbon or who go to an Estee Lauder counter for one, and I’ll take the signatures to Washington as a reminder to the President that breast cancer research and treatment should remain a top priority. Alexandra Penney.

Self magazine, October 1992 page 141

Due to the publication of the magazine and the distribution of ribbons, the symbol became known over the country. The myth, that Evelyn Lauder is the creator of the Pink Ribbon, is still alive. Probably for commercial purposes in the very interest of Estee Lauder Companies. As breast cancer awareness started to grow, more and more organizations started to incorporate the pink ribbon as the symbol for breast cancer.

Share This