We get it: you’re probably not remotely interested in what the people who pass you by in the street are wearing. But one day, if the sun is in just the right place, the glint of a safety pin attached to someone’s lapel may well catch your eye. You’ll probably think the individual is masking a rip – or perhaps that the pin is merely a remnant from a punk-rocker past. That’s where you’d be wrong. And it’s time to take note of the symbol’s poignant hidden meaning.
On the surface, a safety pin is pretty innocuous. But like a lot of items we use today, it has a relatively interesting invention story. The safety pin was first conjured up by a mechanic called Walter Hunt in around 1849 as a way to try and settle a $15 debt. Later, he sold the rights to the patent of his innovation to the man he’d been trying to pay back for $400. And at the time, it was the only pin with a clasp and spring function and was meant to stop fingers from getting poked by the pointed end – hence the name.
The intended purpose of the safety pin presumably was – and still is – to join pieces of fabric. Some common uses for the device over the years have included securing cloth diapers, fixing ripped clothing and fastening bandages in first aid. But what you may not know is that the significance of the safety pin goes far beyond its household functions.
Believe it or not, but this humble device has come to acquire a number of culturally significant meanings over the years. In some countries, for instance, they are thought to protect against harmful supernatural forces and bad fortune. And the items were also – rather unforgettably, we might add – appropriated by the punk subculture in the 1970s when they were worn as a fashion accessory. Yes, hands up if you remember the look all too vividly!
Swiftly moving on… In recent years, the safety pin has become symbolic of yet another movement. This time around, though, it’s displayed in a much more subtle way than it had been in the days of punk rock. And that’s not all that’s different. You see, the meaning that’s now attached to the makeshift accessory is perhaps more powerful than ever.
This idea of using fashion as a form of expression and activism is certainly nothing new. Clothes have played an important part in the women’s movement, for instance. Just take a look at the suffragettes, who dressed in white in the early 1900s. There’s also the popular myth of 1970s feminists lighting their bras on fire to challenge the social expectations of the time.
And fashion historian Einav Rabinovitch-Fox has a rather interesting theory about the link between clothes and activism. She told website The Zoe Report in September 2020, “Fashion was and is always political because it is a material way to express power.” Rabinovitch-Fox added that even back in the 1850s, people could be found showcasing their beliefs through their fashion choices.
But the uniform adorned by early 20th-century suffragettes is what made them particularly recognizable as a political group. Kara McLeod is a fashion historian and professor at California’s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM). And while explaining the movement’s dress code, she said, “The suffragettes wore white as part of a trinity of colors: white for purity, purple for dignity and loyalty and green for hope.”
McLeod went on to explain the origin of the suffragette uniform. She told The Zoe Report, “The color scheme was first proposed in 1908 in the British publication Votes for Women by one of the co-editors Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Other publications promoted this essentially branding of the women’s suffrage movement.”
Suffragettes also used white, purple and green on accessories such as sashes, hatbands and ribbons. This meant that women in society could visibly align themselves with the feminist cause without committing to an entire outfit. And while green was the third hue favored by British women, their American counterparts soon swapped it out for a shade of golden yellow.
Amazingly, the color white is still to this day associated with the same cause that the suffragettes were fighting for around a century ago. Giving an example of this, McLeod revealed, “In 2017 the House Democratic Women’s Working Group asked women members to wear white to a presidential address as a group gesture signifying support for women’s rights.”
Some leading female politicians have similarly sported the hue on important occasions. Hillary Clinton wore a white suit during her final presidential debate in 2016, for instance. Congresswomen such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Lois Frankel have also been spotted in clothes of that shade.
But politicians aren’t the only ones to wear items of clothing that are saturated with historic meaning. Many believe that the universal love of jeans we see today was actually fueled by student activists who supported the civil rights movement and put on the workwear staples as a form of solidarity. Designer and historian Miko Underwood told The Zoe Report, “Denim served not only as a rebellious uniform to the culture of the middle-class activists, but also as a soul tie to the black laborers.”
Another group that made the most of fashion to symbolize their movement was the Black Panthers. The Panthers were founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 to challenge racism and police brutality in the U.S. And members often wore black from head-to-toe – usually with sunglasses, a leather jacket and a black beret to complete the look.
For some groups, though, one color just isn’t enough. Take the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ movement, for instance. The insignia was first produced by a San Francisco-based artist called Gilbert Baker in 1978, and each of its six colors represents a different theme. Purple is for spirit, blue symbolizes harmony and green represents nature, while yellow signifies sunlight, orange is for healing and red refers to life.
And so that we don’t have to carry large flags around with us, various movements have now created more subtle ways for people to demonstrate their affiliations. Organizations and causes appear to have fashioned accessories to suit everyone’s preferences – from small badges to ribbons and wristbands to jewelry, .
One of the most recognizable of those accessories, of course, is the colored ribbon. And as you’re probably aware, the pink variety has become known everywhere as a symbol of breast cancer. By pinning one of these ribbons to your clothes, you’re showing your support to those dealing with the condition while also offering a sign of hope for better things to come.
Another, perhaps less well-known ribbon movement is The Brown Ribbon Campaign, which was started by Eva Longoria back in 2016. The star asked actresses and actors attending that year’s Oscars ceremony to don a brown ribbon in support of the advancement of Latinos in the movie trade and in the wider U.S.
Then there’s also the red ribbon, which is worn to demonstrate support and empathy for those dealing with HIV/AIDS. The symbol was adopted by the Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus group in 1991 and remains a powerful emblem of the condition today. Interestingly, one of the reasons why a red ribbon was originally picked is because it was considered an easy color for people to get hold of.
But some signs of solidarity can be even simpler. Take, for example, the humble safety pin, which became a symbol of a movement in around 2016. But can you guess what makes this particular household item so ingenious when it comes to showing your support? Well, much like why the red ribbon was chosen, it’s all down to them being easy to get your hands on. Most of us will have at least one safety pin hanging around our homes, after all.
Though as we’ve already touched on, 2016 wasn’t the first time the safety pin acquired some cultural relevance. In Mexico, pregnant women sometimes place one near their stomach, believing that it will protect their unborn babies from loss or illness. And in Ukraine, these pins are attached to kids’ clothes in a bid to defend dark supernatural forces.
Safety pins were also borrowed by the punk movement in the 1970s. The use of the items in this subculture was seemingly as much a practical move as it was an aesthetic one, as people used them to keep their stylishly broken outfits together. The little device also came in handy when punks wanted to add patches to their clothes. Nifty, eh?
In its most recent incarnation as a cultural symbol, though, the safety pin has come to represent something more powerful than perhaps ever before. The movement was born right at a time when some sections of society felt at risk of emotional or physical abuse. Others, meanwhile, wanted a way in which they could clearly show their support.
The idea behind the modern safety pin movement, then, was to wear one to signify your solidarity with those who may feel marginalized or vulnerable. And it didn’t matter where you placed your pin. It could be on your lapel, collar, skirt or dress, but the mere presence of the simple item meant that you were willing to speak up for those who may need backing.
Some of the marginalized groups that the safety pin movement aimed to show solidarity with included women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and those with disabilities. And playing on the name, the pins were supposed to communicate to these people that they were in a “safe” space.
So by donning a safety pin, you could subtly but clearly mark yourself as an ally to those affected by all kinds of discrimination. This included but was not limited to sexism, ableism, racism and Islamophobia. And while the idea was simple enough, it soon caught on.
In 2016 Brooklyn-based graphic designer Kaye Kagaoan explained the safety pin movement in an interview with The New York Times. She said, “It’s a matter of showing people who get it that I will always be a resource and an ally to anyone and everyone who wants to reach out. When I saw it on Facebook, it was so simple. It resonated with me.”
Even celebrities got in on the act. That same year, British actor and X-Men star Patrick Stewart posted a picture of himself on Twitter in which he sported a safety pin on the lapel of his jacket. At the time of writing, the actor’s post has 9,500 retweets and 25,700 likes as well as a number of supportive comments.
But how exactly did this movement come about? Well, apparently the wearing of safety pins as a symbol of solidarity was inspired by Australia’s #illridewithyou campaign, which started in the wake of the Sydney cafe siege in 2014. It was at that point when members of the public put on safety pins to show support for the Muslim community.
As it turned out, though, people had different interpretations of what the movement actually meant. Many saw wearing a safety pin as a way to oppose the rise in right-wing politics, though others envisioned it as something much purer. As Sabrina Krebs, a student from Guatemala, explained to The New York Times, “More than anything, it’s pro-kindness… It’s a form of resistance to hate and to negativity.”
For Krebs, part of the safety pin movement’s charm was that it was accessible to most people. That’s thanks to the everyday nature of the object in question. She explained, “Everyone has safety pins in their house. It’s something everyone can join.” And when you look at it like that, it’s hardly surprising that the item took off as a symbol of solidarity.
Krebs wasn’t the only person to comment on the lack of effort one had to go to in order to acquire and ultimately wear a safety pin. Truck driver Robert Clarke told The New York Times, “It doesn’t take much to wear a safety pin. I have them on several jackets, so I don’t have to think about it.”
But just how easy it was to get involved turned out to be a bone of contention in itself. Why? Well, it was suggested that simply wearing a safety pin did not amount to taking action of any kind. On Twitter, the trend was even slammed by some as “slacktivism” – a term that blends the words “slacker” and “activism.”
And author Christopher Keelty went so far as to say that the movement was more about certain groups of people relieving their guilt than actually supporting marginalized or vulnerable communities. In a self-penned piece for HuffPost in 2016, Keelty said of safety pins, “They’ll do little or nothing to reassure the marginalized populations they are allegedly there to reassure.”
Keelty went on, “Marginalized people know full well the long history of white people calling themselves allies while doing nothing to help – or even inflicting harm on – non-white Americans.” And he added, “We don’t get to make ourselves feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating ourselves as allies.”
A number of Twitter users echoed similar sentiments to those expressed by Keelty. In 2016 one wrote on the social media platform, “By all means, wear a safety pin if you think it’s somehow helping someone. But do not make it the only thing you do to be an ally.” And such criticism did appear to have an impact.
Another safety pin-wearer took to Twitter to acknowledge that more needed to be done. They wrote, “I recognize that wearing a safety pin is not sufficient action and does not supplement [or] provide active, constructive work. Donate time. Donate money. Support people in your community with action. If you still wear the pin, be sure to be ready to back it up.”
But for all the backlash the safety pin movement sparked, it did have its supporters. Writing on Medium in 2016, Anoosh Jorjorian said, “I’ve heard from plenty of POCs [people of color] and Muslims as well as some LGBTQIAs that they feel surrounded by enemies. The safety pin helps them feel that they are not isolated and alone.”
Michelle Goldberg even suggested that the safety pin movement had the potential to bring people together. In 2016 she wrote in a piece for the online magazine Slate, “We need an outward sign of sympathy – a way for the majority of us who voted against fascism to recognize one another.”
Clarke, meanwhile, told The New York Times that the safety pin was both a symbol to others of his solidarity and a constant reminder for him to step up to the plate. He explained, “A big part of wearing it is the mental preparation on my part. If I do see something, I’ve thought it through, and I’ll stand up and say something and not be a silent witness.”
As we’ve already explored, safety pins aren’t the only way to show support to certain individuals in society. However, while we now know the symbolism behind the red, brown and pink ribbons, you should recognize that there’s also a green one. What does this signify? Well, the green ribbon isn’t intended as a mere fashion accessory, either. But the hidden meaning is slightly different. And when you learn what this symbol in aid of, you may want to get hold of one yourself.
The tradition of wearing a badge or ribbon in support of a cause has roots in humankind’s distant past. Some say that the trend traces all the way back to the days when knights would joust – or even battle to the death. Supporters would hand over tokens of support, sometimes even bits of their own clothing, to the men in armor.
Americans were once thought to have adopted the trend during the country’s Civil War in the 1860s. It was said that people donned yellow ribbons as a way to celebrate soldiers returning from battle. But researchers have since found evidence that the ribbon trend didn’t catch on until the 20th century.
The American Folklife Center has looked into the history of the yellow ribbon, and it believes that the accessory didn’t become popular because of the Civil War. Instead it has pointed to a song called “Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” which has been floating around in one form or another for hundreds of years.
The tune’s ties to the Civil War actually come from a Hollywood rendition of the song, according to the Folklife Center’s researchers. In a movie titled Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, actors Joanne Dru and John Wayne helped build a connection between the conflict and the golden accessory.
But the real-life reason why Americans started using ribbons in this way may have started much later – in the 20th century. The Folklore Center’s researchers discovered a passage in a 1959 book titled Star Wormwood, which centers on prison reform. In it, they found a tale about a former inmate returning home and hoping to see a sign from his family.
The prisoner had written to his family in the hope that they’d take him back into the fold after his jail sentence ended. He told them to tie a white ribbon to the tree by the train station. If he saw one, he’d get off and rejoin his relatives. If not, he’d continue his journey and stay away from the family for good.
The story ended happily – the entire tree was covered in white ribbons when the prisoner arrived at the station. And people continued to tell the same tale over the years. In the 1960s and 1970s, different versions of the story made were spread through churches, newspapers and even movies. And people started using ribbons to welcome home prisoners because of the widely known story.
But the yellow ribbon would eventually signify more than just welcoming home inmates. In 1979 it became a symbol of hope that Americans abroad would return home safely to U.S. soil. And it all started when U.S. embassy staffers in Iran were taken hostage by insurgents. The wife of the U.S. ambassador, Bruce Laingen, tied a yellow ribbon to an oak tree in the garden of the family’s Maryland residence. She hoped that her husband would come home and untie it.
And the meaning of the yellow ribbon has continued to morph – it’s not just a symbol for imprisoned Americans anymore. It’s now used to display backing for the U.S. armed forces, especially troops who’ve gone missing or have been captured.
You might’ve already heard some of these things about the yellow ribbon – and a few of the other more popular hues, as well. A loop of pink ribbon has become a symbol for breast cancer awareness, thanks to an early 1990s campaign devised by Charlotte Haley. Since then, the accessory has become a must-have during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And her idea for ribbons inspired many others to create similar loops for their causes, too.
The red ribbon made waves when a slew of Tony Award attendees wore the loop on their lapels during the 1991 ceremony. At that time, few people knew that it was a symbol for AIDS awareness. So having celebrities wear the ribbon brought lots of media attention to a topic that some still considered off limits.
You could see other shades of ribbon pop up around town, of course. Purple is a popular one, meant to inspire hope in those with epilepsy, cystic fibrosis and pancreatic cancer, along with close to 80 other issues.
If that seems like a lot, then consider the blue ribbon. Its loops are used to symbolize more than 100 different issues, including water safety and malaria awareness. The same ribbon is also used to raise awareness of numerous social problems, such as bullying and human trafficking.
That isn’t to be confused with other shades of blue, either. A lighter hue is a symbol for prostate cancer awareness. And a denim ribbon highlights genetic conditions. Finally, a turquoise loop lends support to the 20 million Americans who have substance-abuse problems – it’s meant to symbolize recovery.
Not all ribbons take on a single shade, either. The puzzle piece ribbon is an example. Its multicolored pieces fit together in a pattern meant to symbolize the complexities of autism, other spectrum disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome, too. A polka-dotted ribbon lends support to the community of blind Americans, who total more than three million people.
And then, of course, there’s the green ribbon. It turns out that this one’s been around a lot longer than some of the other entries on this list. But the meaning has morphed since such ribbons were first worn in 17th-century England. Between 1642 and 1651, the country endured its Civil War, and one protest group hoped to give sovereignty to the people.
This group was called the Levellers, and their supporters wore green ribbons, as well as rosemary sprigs. These became such a symbol of their ideals that when one of their leaders died, mourners donned both at the funeral.
Since then, the green ribbon has come to symbolize more than populist ideals. For one thing, people wear the accessory to raise awareness of both kidney cancer and other kidney diseases. In the U.K., these causes are focused on throughout March, so you’re likely to see more kidney-centric ribbons at this time of year.
Others attach green ribbons to their lapels to raise awareness for another condition: mitochondrial disease. This genetic ailment pulls energy from the body and can be fatal as it may cause organs to fail. The disease, which remains without a cure, can also affect people of all ages.
The green ribbon has also been used to show support for farming families and rural communities. The idea arose during the late 1990s from a Catholic church in North Dakota. Its members shared the ribbons along with cards bearing the message: “We care through prayer.” The National Catholic Rural Life Conference adopted the idea that year, too, so other remote religious centers began to do the same.
In more recent years, other social causes have picked up the green ribbon as well. After the July 2005 bombings in London, in Nottinghamshire, England, the police passed out the accessories. The local community then donned the ribbons as a show of solidarity with their Muslim neighbors.
Three years later, similarly hued ribbons popped up in Manchester, England, to help with an entirely different social issue. The cause was called Body Positive North West, and it intended to raise the profile of quick HIV tests available to those living in the U.K. It was especially important to spread this information because, at the time, more than 30 percent of Britons with HIV didn’t know they had the virus.
But if you see a green ribbon clipped onto someone’s lapel this October, it could be for a social cause separate from all of the above. That’s because on October 10, people across the globe come together to recognize World Mental Health Day, as organized by the World Federation for Mental Health and observed by the World Health Organization.
The World Federation for Mental Health made October 10 the World Mental Health Day during the early 1990s. The organization initially used the day to educate the public about mental health issues. As part of those efforts, it transmitted broadcasts on the topic from a Florida studio. And the federation soon came to find that the program was reaching more than Americans.
The federation received calls from around the world that day. People phoned in from Zambia, the U.K., Chile and Australia. And according to the WFMH’s website, “We realized that we were indeed reaching far afield, because there was an unanticipated and unscheduled telephone call-in from Swaziland, where a group of WFMH members had gathered to view to the program.”
Today World Mental Health Day has of course become an international day of advocacy and information-sharing. And since 1994 organizers have given each October 10 a special topic beyond general mental health. The first-ever theme was “Improving the Quality of Mental Health Services throughout the World,” for example.
In 2020 the theme is a lot different, and that’s obviously due to the current state of the world as the global population deals with Covid-19. The World Federation for Mental Health’s president, Dr. Ingrid Daniels, explained the latest topic in a statement on the organization’s website. She wrote, “We know that the levels of anxiety, fear, isolation, social distancing and restrictions, uncertainty and emotional distress experienced have become widespread as the world struggles to bring the virus under control and to find solutions.”
As of 2020 a staggering 450 million across the world live with mental-health disorders, and one in every four people will deal with such issues over the course of their lifetime. Perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that 800,000 die by suicide each year, meaning someone commits the act every 40 seconds.
As Daniels put it in her statement, “The current worldwide pandemic arose against an already dire mental health landscape that saw mental health conditions on the rise across the globe.” She later added, “This bleak picture necessitates that we ensure that mental health is prioritized now more than ever before.”
And it could be a costly error to ignore the mental health crisis, according to Daniels. As more and more people deal with mental health disorders, the impact could easily run into trillions of dollars. So for the well-being of people around the world, the World Federation for Mental Health advocates for universal healthcare.
It’s from that goal that the federation pulled the theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day. The motto is: “Greater Investment – Greater Access.” Daniels tied it all together, writing, “Quality, accessible primary health care is the foundation for universal health coverage and is urgently required as the world grapples with the current health emergency. We therefore need to make mental health a reality for all – for everyone, everywhere.”
It isn’t just the World Federation for Mental Health that promotes World Mental Health Day, either. Plenty of celebrities have taken to social media to express their support for the cause. In 2019 singer Harry Styles replied to a fan who tweeted about neglecting her mental healthcare needs.
The fan took to Twitter to say that, because Styles was releasing a new album and going on tour, she’d have to put therapy on hold. The singer replied to her tweet, writing, “Go to therapy, it’s important. I’ll wait for you.” He then used the World Mental Health hashtag – it was October 10, after all.
Styles’ fellow singer Ed Sheeran has also highlighted World Mental Health Day on his Instagram alongside a very special guest from the English royal family. He wrote, “Myself and Prince Harry want to ensure that not just today but every day, you look after yourself, your friends and those around you.”
Sheeran further reassured fans with his Instagram caption. He reiterated, “There’s no need to suffer in silence – share how you’re feeling, ask how someone is doing and listen for the answer, be willing to ask for help when you need it, and know that we are all in this together.”
The 2019 Mental Health Day observance also saw actress Ruby Rose discussing more than just the value of therapy – she shared her own journey with mental health issues. Rose stated on Instagram that she’d dealt with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as dissociative amnesia, meaning she forgot details of her life due to trauma or stress.
And actress Kate Walsh chimed in on the photo-sharing platform for 2019’s World Mental Health Day, too. She wrote, “Remember to take things at your own pace, stick it through to the end, and embrace all that you are and all that you aren’t…” The post resonated with fans, many of whom commented to express their thanks for the star’s support.
So, keep your eyes peeled for green ribbons this October. The person wearing one is likely making a statement that they support mental health awareness. The Mental Health Foundation’s website states that those sporting a green loop should do so “to create walking safe spaces for people to talk about mental health.”
It doesn’t have to be an October-only accessory, either. You can purchase a green ribbon pin through the Mental Health Foundation’s website and wear it year-round to show your support. The organization also encourages supporters to inspire their “friends and family to buy one and wear one with pride,” since taking care of your mental health should be a reason for self-regard and satisfaction.