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Driving around in America lately, one can't help but see numerous cars sporting the latest trend in self-expression: giant ribbon-shaped magnets, most often yellow or star-spangled. These ribbons are just the most recent version of the bewildering variety of ribbon knots that have been around for the past decade or so. I contend that they go back farther than that. Our modern twists of ribbon are the descendants of a centuries-old tradition, the cockade.

The OED cites 1660 as the first use of "cockared caps" ("cockade" being a corruption of the French "cockared" or 16th c. "coquarde," referring to a cock's comb). The cockade was originally a hat ornament, a spray of feathers. (I borrowed this image from Lamplight Feathers, if your life won't be complete until you own one.)

From the feathers evolved a rosette of fabric or ribbon, often used to pin up one side of a hat. (If you can't live without one of these, visit C & D Jarnagin.)

The wearing of a cockade was associated with the military, if not from the first, then from early on. They have also signified support for political movements for centuries. Scottish Jacobites wore a white cockade, which some romantics believe originated when Bonnie Prince Charlie picked a white rose and stuck it on his bonnet. Robert Burns wrote a poem about it, based on the song "My Love Was Born in Aberdeen." The White Cockade is much celebrated even today, with pubs and bands and what-all named for it.

Of course, Jacobites weren't the only ones wearing white cockades. informs us that "in 1767 an authoritative regulation determined that every French soldier should wear a white cockade, and in 1782 the badge was restricted to the military."

Nor was white the only color of cockade. Just like our modern ribbons, anyone with a cause could put on a knot of ribbon and proclaim support. There were lots of blue, white, and red cockades along with the liberty caps in the French Revolution.

In America cockades have been around since the Revolution, when the state of Maryland acquired the nickname "the Cockade State" because of the flashy ornaments worn by its soldiers. Petersburg, Virginia is similarly known as "the Cockade City" because of the exploits of the Petersburg Volunteers in the War of 1812. And there were lots of cockades around during the Civil War, mostly in southern states.

Our modern cockades seem to have sprung from the little red lapel ribbons that sprouted to indicate support for AIDS research. The Red Ribbon Foundation was founded in 1993 "in memory of Singer/songwriter Paul Jabara, who conceived of and distributed the first Red Ribbon, and who died of AIDS." I seem to recall the ribbons themselves being around earlier than that. There have also been pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness since 1993, according to the Avon Foundation.

Yellow ribbons were a variation that sprang up in support of troops overseas. This refers to the old Tony Orlando and Dawn song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," which in turn refers to the Civil War era custom of ladies who had beaus in the cavalry wearing yellow ribbons. (The ladies, not the beaus. The beaus had no bows, they had braid. And guns. I digress.) Interesting discussion of this history at First Team.

The latest round of ribbon fervor really got started after 9-11. Just the ribbons associated with that event would fill a book. Some of them got really gaudy. I was going to try to provide a very basic selection of the bewildering array of ribbons now online in support of various causes, but I find it's been done for me by someone with a lot more time. If you want to count how many different campaigns use yellow ribbons, like "Support our Troops," POW/MIAs, "Prevent Teen Suicide," "No Taxes on the Web," "Free Henry Wu" (who's that?), you will surely enjoy Ribbon Campaign, "the most comprehensive catalog of ribbons on the net." They show everything from AIDS to New Zeland's hope for affordable Internet access. Many of these campaigns are serious, but many others are exceedingly frivolous ("Fight Against Decaf Coffee," "Stop Hating Leonardo DiCaprio," and multitudinous campaigns against stupidity on the Web). I myself was drawn to the Protest Everything Ribbon, shown here.

If this isn't enough fun, the amazing ribbon-o-matic lets you design your own ribbon. Off with you now, and have fun.

Six pages, no major mishaps with tea.

I'm going to try this comment thing, but don't get out of hand, OK? I gotta write.


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June 2009

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