Jeremy Irons was the first celebrity to wear the red AIDS ribbon, and he is among the ranks of celebrities who have abandoned it.
When the actor pinned the scarlet grosgrain loop on his lapel as host of the 1992 Tony Awards in New York City, he was on a mission to bring attention to the AIDS epidemic.
Patrick O'Connell, founder of a group called New York-based Visual AIDS, had come up with the idea.
No one explained the ribbon's meaning that night, but people noticed it and wondered. Within months, other celebrities had adopted the ribbon as a de rigueur evening accessory.
At the Emmys later that year, Jamie Lee Curtis finally debriefed America via national television, explaining its significance. Columbia Records took out an ad the following February in the Grammy Awards program exhorting everyone: "Wear this ribbon tonight. Let's all do more tomorrow." By this time, baskets of AIDS awareness ribbons, some of them assembled by women in homeless shelters, were being passed like canapes at parties.
"Our red ribbon became one of the most recognized logos around the world, second only to Coca-Cola," says Gary Jabara of the Red Ribbon Foundation, an AIDS support group. "Now, they are sometimes perceived as a cliche."
Indeed, at the recent Grammy Awards and Academy Awards ceremonies, it was clear that the ribbons had become passe. Bruce Springsteen, who accepted a Grammy earlier this month for his song "Streets of Philadelphia," about a man dying of AIDS-related illnesses, did not wear one. And many stars who have worn them in the past went without at the Oscars on Monday night. Some replaced the red loop with a pin signifying support for the National Endowment for the Arts.
"Only the die-hards and the activists are still wearing them," Jabara says.
For some, the AIDS ribbon was only a passing fashion fad, says Michael Anketell, chairman of California Fashion Friends of AIDS Project Los Angeles. Lately he has heard such excuses as "It doesn't match my gown" from past wearers. "As if the ribbon ever matched anything," he says.
Others say it has gotten lost in the ribbon rainbow: pink for breast cancer, lavender for abused women.
"The AIDS ribbon was so popular that it spawned its own progeny. It's an example of a trenchant fashion cycle in contemporary society. There was a time when it was astonishing to see someone not wearing the ribbon. It was felt so passionately, it became of that moment, and as such soon became a dated gesture," says Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
But for those closest to the cause, the ribbon has become a shallow symbol and painful reminder of an epidemic with no cure and no sign of abatement.
At the recent Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation fund-raiser in Los Angeles, red ribbons were MIA.
An inverted V of red grosgrain in the face of so many deaths has "become a little trite," says Michael Weinstein of Aids Health Care Foundation.
Since 1981, there have been 18,066 deaths attributed to AIDS-related illnesses in Los Angeles County. In 1993, there were 2,733; as of December, 1994, the toll was 2,879, says Dr. John Schunhoff, director of AIDS programs for the county department of health services.
"There's definitely burnout and a lot of frustration," Anketell says. "After raising millions of dollars, you realize you haven't solved the problem, friends are still dying and the circle is closing in. The ribbon just doesn't have the meaning it once had."
Says Butler: "It's only a symbol. It doesn't do anything for research; it isn't making people get well; it isn't speeding up anything, and it's not a fund-raiser."
And as a symbol, it may have served its purpose. "I think it's done its job in that respect," says David Eng, director of communications for the American Foundation for AIDS Research.
The ribbon's declining popularity has created an opening for other causes, including the National Endowment for the Arts support pin. It's composed of two 32-cent NEA postage stamps, which represent the 64-cent annual cost of arts funding to the average taxpayer. Martin Landau wore one Monday night when he picked up his Oscar for best supporting actor. Presenter Jamie Lee Curtis wore the NEA pin on her right shoulder and an AIDS ribbon on her left.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Andie MacDowell and Dianne Wiest also wore AIDS ribbons. Susan Sarandon, a past wearer and banner-carrier for many causes, was among the vast majority who did not.