Fashion Archaeology: Earrings

Unpacking the Historical Jewelry Box

  • Text: Rebecca Storm

Earrings are cyphers for who we are, an ambiguous (yet sometimes misleading) appraisal of our class and character. A quick dart of the eyes to the left or right of a face can tell a substantial story about the person in front of you.

Yet at the risk of encouraging judgements of the book-cover variety, let us instead consider the heft of an earring’s symbolism throughout history—earrings, afterall, can be weighty. With a past as rich and as varied as it is extensive, adorning the auditory extremities is not an act to be over-simplified. Modifications send messages.

It is difficult to pinpoint why and when humans began practicing piercing, one of the oldest forms of body modification. From Egyptian tombs; to hoops of bronze, silver and gold locked in decorative Aegean frescoes on the island of Santorini; to Sumerians in Mesopotamia; to Otzi the Iceman (Europe’s oldest mummy); to the Ainu people of Japan; to Hindu children in India; even to Biblical references—this lengthy list seems scant at best considering the perpetual omnipresence of earrings across history.

In some cultures, only children or slaves wore earrings, in others, earrings signified affluence or religious allegiance.

William Shakespeare wore one to identify himself as a poet, and for sailors, a small hoop in one ear boasted the accomplishment of having been around the world—or at the very least, past the Equator. Some historians argue that this hoop moonlighted as feeble financial compensation for proper burial by whomever might come across his bloated body, were the sailor to have ever died at sea and be washed ashore.

Many centuries later, a single piercing in the right ear maintained its denotative characteristic, only this time functioning as a badge for homosexuality.

Ear piercing in the early 20th century grew seldom among women in America—traded instead for the frail, dainty picture of white femininity popular at the time. The propriety of a demure, yet tastefully decorated woman, called for clip-ons and screw-backs. This satisfied the neurotic need to avoid the “unsanitary” practice of piercing.

Toward the 60s, women retaliated against this new implementation of careful—and decidedly white—self-adornment. The Black Power movement embraced Afrocentric dress—from natural hairstyles, to traditional patterns, to jewelry, including the hoop earring.

This, of course, lead to the subsequent re-popularization of piercing, and was further emphasized by powerful, prominent women of color who flaunted the style. Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and Angela Davis popularized the spherical adornment, which lead to its subsequent ubiquity in the mainstream. An all too familiar ascendance—from subculture to pop culture.

The scope of contemporary pierced ears ranges from minimal, to stretched, to shields of cartilage piercings. Not just mere receivers, our ears send messages too—a chandelier drop earring is as deliberate a signifier as a 00 gauge spacer.

Mere decoration, or a method of further pushing the limits that restrain us. Structurally, an ear can bear an adornment that’s only so heavy. Ultimately, it must continue to capture the details we cannot see.

  • Text: Rebecca Storm