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Red-carpet ribbons: For a good cause or just 'cause it's cool?

In the age of irony, you'd think someone would have tried it by now.

A celebrity could walk the red carpet at the Oscars in a simple white sheath festooned with a thousand "cause" ribbons in every colour. Her bare arms could be ringed with kitschy silicone bracelets in candy hues.

"There isn't an earthquake or a disease or a societal issue that escapes my notice," the actress could say sweetly to the TV interviewers. "I'm not just a vacuous celebrity who thinks only of herself." Better yet, she wouldn't have to a say a thing. She could let her ribbons and bracelets do the talking.

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But, oh yes, it would be a risk. A celebrity who sends up the cause trend? Image suicide. (Well, maybe shock comedian Kathy Griffin could pull it off.)

Still, a little satire would come as welcome relief from the conspicuous compassion that grips the world. Sure, there's an anti-ribbon ribbon (black and yellow stripes, reportedly), but such sarcasm lives only in the dusty corners of the Internet.

In celebrity circles, wearing a ribbon can still be an expected part of the formal social costume. At the recent Golden Globes, for example, the ribbon du jour was for Haitian earthquake relief.

Wearing a cause on one's frontage (or one's wrist) started out as a serious consciousness-raising tactic.

"Ribbon-wearing was, originally, a gesture of defiance and protest, something relatively daring even," says Sarah Moore, lecturer in the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen's University in Belfast, and author of Ribbon Culture.

"When Jeremy Irons wore one at the Tony Awards in 1991, he was one of [only two]celebrities who did so, even though many had been sent the lapel pins by Visual AIDS."

The cause bracelet obsession began in 1997, with cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's yellow "Livestrong" bands. In 2005, after a boost from Oprah, 32 million people were wearing the bracelets, according to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which sells them to fund educational programs. Other charitable foundations - and some private ones - have followed suit.

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The klieg-lit self is a billboard, of course, which celebrities are happy to use - for a cause and perhaps some Harry Winston jewels. The red AIDS ribbon, when it first appeared, forced people to at least silently acknowledge a disease that was little understood at the time and highly stigmatized.

But for some observers, the integrity of cause ribbons quickly unravelled. By 1993, AIDS activists were complaining that the pin of red looped fabric was tokenistic, more an expression of guilt than compassion. Still, causes jumped on the fabric wagon.

"By the mid-1990s, we had ribbons of every hue and for many causes - including mouth cancer, autism, child abuse, self-harm, the Oklahoma bombings, violence against women and breast cancer," Moore observes. "At some point in all this, the ribbon had become a fashion item, its capacity to make a meaningful statement of protest significantly weakened."

Moore found that many people deliberated about wearing their ribbon based on whether it matched their outfit, and they were more inclined to remember the shop they bought it from than the charity it supported. And many knew "next to nothing" about the illnesses their ribbons represented.

Other observers, including Samantha King, an associate professor at Queen's University in Kingston and author of Pink Ribbons Inc., have examined how corporations' embrace of campaigns such as finding a cure for breast cancer have eclipsed prevention efforts.

A show of compassion, in other words, can be just that - a show, which has more to do with projecting an image about the wearer than it does with the cause. In Conspicuous Compassion, British author Patrick West writes that the trend is a symptom of what psychologist Oliver James called the "low serotonin" society.

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"We are given to such displays of empathy because we want to be loved ourselves. Despite being healthier, richer and better off than in living memory, we are not happier," West argues, citing the breakdown in traditional communities and the growing percentage of people who live alone. Ribbon-wearing is "about feeling good, not doing good," he writes.

Still, isn't anything we wear a comment on self, a hopeful reflection of who we want to be? Irons's ribbon in 1991 made him seem progressive and, better yet for a celebrity, remembered - even now, close to 20 years later. Subverting the social costume is what individual style is all about, isn't it?

Everyone makes a statement every day, depending on what she or he puts on. David Butler-Jones, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, wears leather jackets and Mickey Mouse watches. "I always figure it's nice to have something that doesn't quite fit," he once told me. It shows self-confidence. He doesn't have to wear the suit of authority; he could inspire calm in the face of the H1N1 crisis by being it.

In her memoir Read My Pins, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright wrote about how she used pins - everything from family heirlooms to drugstore purchases - to telegraph the importance of a negotiation. Once, after being called "an unparalleled serpent" by one of Saddam's minions, she wore a snake pin when meeting Iraqi officials.

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