Few items have taken on as much symbolic meaning in our culture as ribbons. For much of the 20th and 21st centuries, ribbons of varying colors became the physical embodiment of social causes, used as a way of spreading awareness and unifying movements under a single banner (or in this case, ribbon). Today, there are a whole rainbow of ribbons that have come to symbolically represent diverse and far-reaching causes. But what did ribbons mean before they became synonymous with building awareness? What function and role did they play in our collective consciousness? Nobody loves assigning meaning to inanimate objects more than authors, so we turn to literature for guidance. Here are some meaningful ribbons and the appearances they have made in books both old and new.
The Canterbury Tales is one of the earliest known references to ribbons in literature. Ribbons themselves reached Europe in the middle ages, arriving from Asia and the Middle East. In The Miller’s Tale, Chaucer references ribbons when describing the character of Alisoun, who has “tapes and ribbons” on her “milky mutch” referring to her headdress.
The Miller’s Tale is a bawdy story about young lust and aged foolishness. Alisoun is the local beauty, she is married to the older John, but when young Nicholas rents a room in their house, he sets his sights on her. Nicholas tricks John into sleeping in the bathtub so he can spend the night with Alisoun. Throughout the story, Chaucer characterizes Alisoun as wanton and unable to control her sexuality. Yet at the end of the story, she is the only character who goes unpunished.
Ultimately Alisoun’s character, and the ribbons that describe her, are contradictory. While the ribbons could be used to signify her sexuality, they are pinned on a white headdress, indicating virtue. Moreso, Alisoun is compared to animals, but specifically prey rather than predators. Chaucer seems to be hinting that the audience should have sympathy with Alisoun rather than solely condemnation as if her sexual choices are things that happen to her rather than results of her own agency.
During the Regency period, one of the most popular indicators of wealth was satin, frequently in the form of ribbons. Demand for satin ribbons, and the desire for machines that could more rapidly produce them, were one of the driving factors of the industrial revolution.
In Pride & Prejudice the Bennet family is highly concerned with social status, and they seek out ways of rising in rank, mainly through marriage, but also through dress. When Lydia buys a bonnet that her sisters deem unsuitable, she responds that it will look better with the addition of satin, likely in the form of a ribbon. “When I have bought some prettier colored satin to trim it with fresh, I think it will be very tolerable.
Austen uses satin accessories as one of many indicators of affluence and class that the Bennet family utilize as a signal of legitimacy. She critiques the ways in which material objects are used as vehicles for one's obsession with social climbing, and how this societal focus can impact the lives of young women.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, Goodman Brown goes on a journey in the evening with a sinister companion that tests his spiritual convictions. The story is a Puritan cautionary tale about a young man who goes on a walk in the forest with the devil. He struggles with the morality of this decision only to encounter his pious neighbors and mentors have been doing the same.
Goodman’s wife is a beautiful young woman named Faith, who serves as the physical embodiment of his, well, faith. The Puritans were never one for subtlety after all. As opposed to Chaucer who used ribbons to associate Alisoun with sexual behavior, Faith is repeatedly described as wearing pink ribbons, signaling her goodness and virtue. “And Faith, as the wife was aptly named, thrust her own pretty head into the street, letting the wind play with the pink ribbons of her cap,” When Goodman is at the peak of his doubt and despair in the forest, he sees a pink ribbon falling from the sky, indicating that Faith has been coerced into joining the devil like the rest of his community. She later appears with Goodman before their community as the two are nearly inducted into the devil’s cult. It is never made clear whether Goodman’s whole community is in fact corrupt, or these visions are a product of the devil’s trickery. Even when Goodman denies the devil, and wakes to find his community and beloved restored, he is not able to return to his love for her, giving the pink ribbon a tragic effect.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of many memorable characters is the young girl named Topsy. Topsy is a slave given to Miss Ophelia by St. Clare, who instructs her to raise and educate Topsy in a civilized manner. Miss Ophelia advocates for slaves and their rights in theory, but when faced with the reality of their humanity, she recoils. Ultimately, however, she steps up and takes Topsy under her wing. Topsy, while a minor character in the book, leaves a lasting impression, so much so that she is often portrayed on the cover with red ribbons in her hair. Topsy is a living example of the horrors of slavery on children in particular. She cannot tell Miss Ophelia who her parents are or when she was born. When Miss Ophelia asks “Do you know who made you?” Topsy responds, “S'pect I grow'd.” While Topsy is clever and humorous, that humor clearly has a dark underbelly. At one point in the novel, Miss Ophelia is instructing Topsy to make a bed when a ribbon falls out of her sleeve. Miss Ophelia then finds gloves and other stolen items on Topsy, which she confesses to taking. Strangely, however, she never confesses to stealing the ribbon despite its relative insignificance compared to the other items which she does admit to stealing. There is a sad irony in the childish innocence of a ribbon when held against the fact that so much of Topsy’s own history, such as her parents and even knowledge of her birth have been stolen from her. The contrast of the youthful ribbon with the harsh reality of Topsy’s own childhood is striking and effective.
Yep’s 1996 Young Adult novel follows Robin, a Chinese-American girl with a deep love for ballet. For Robin, the ribbons on her ballet shoes symbolize her hopes and dreams. However, these dreams become jeopardized when her parents begin saving money to bring Robin’s grandmother over from China, forcing her to stop ballet lessons in the process. Robin continues to practice at home, but resentment builds and her relationship with her parents begins to deteriorate. The arrival of Robin’s grandmother further inflames tensions as Robin’s mother struggles with her feelings of owing her mother, what Robin calls “The Debt” and the grandmother’s favoritism to Robin’s younger brother. Robin tries to connect with her grandmother through ballet, but it goes catastrophically wrong. For Robin’s grandmother, those same ribbons symbolize the painful and oppressive practice of binding the feet of young girls, which she herself experienced. The ribbons on the shoes, and Robbin’s feet which are warped from dance mean something completely different to her than they do to Robin. Robin and her grandmother ultimately connect, but the story is a powerful embodiment of the immigrant experience, and how one thing can have two very different meanings based on perspective and lived experience.
Ribbons, despite their outwardly jovial appearance, have come to take on a heavy symbolic weight. From breast cancer to AIDS to sending a child off to war, Ribbons have come to signify some of the most intense loss and pain the human experience can offer. Despite that, however, there is resilience in the ribbon. This meaning seems to be consistent through literature as well, from Topsy’s life as an enslaved child to Robin’s grandmother's trauma from foot binding. To decorate oneself with a ribbon is to say yes, I have struggled but even more importantly, I have survived.