The history of earrings

Jenessa Williams 11 May 2021

Jenessa Williams dives deep into the history of earrings as a fashion statement

Earrings have a history that goes back centuries, taking in all manner of rebellion and hard-won legitimacy in mainstream society.

Earrings in ancient times

With a close reading of the Bible, it appears that body modification dates back far further than many might think. In the book of Genesis, son of Abraham Isaac gifts his fiancée a Shanf, which translates to mean a “golden earring”.

In Exodus, Aaron spoke with the Israelites to encourage them to gift earrings and fashion a golden idol to fulfil Moses’ demands to God. Even in these early accounts, it is clear that earrings were thought to be of precious worth, something to pass through families and denote a sense of ceremony. Indeed, the earliest earrings of archaeological evidence were crescent-shaped gold hoops thought to have been worn by women around 2500 BC in the residence of Sumer, one of the earliest known civilizations.

Throughout historical records, earrings regularly appear in different communities, often resembling quite different symbolic interpretations. Egyptian males would wear earrings as a sign of wealth and high class, whereas in ancient Rome and Greece, they were thought of as a low-class adornment, particularly amongst slave and sex worker communities. Where higher-class Greek and Roman women did begin to wear earrings later on, they were studded with precious topaz, sapphire and garnets, creating an air of luxury and superiority.

"Egyptian men would wear earrings as a sign of wealth and high class"

Gemstones

Evidence of earrings can also be found in both the late Minoan and Mycenaean periods of the bronze age, and of course have been prevalent for many generations amongst African tribes, the traditional plug style a symbol of femininity, protection and tribe affiliation.  Often carved from wood or assembled from beads, shells and precious metals, such earrings can be impressively ornate, hugely influential on many of the later western styles to come.

Earrings in the Middle Ages

A girl in medieval style wearing pearl earrings

In the 13th century, the Catholic church banned ear piercing, claiming that it was unduly altering one’s appearance created in the eyes of God. As a result, it was driven back into counter-culture. We’re all familiar with the stereotypical notion of the pirate, travelling the world with his parrot and single thick gold earring, but this wasn’t just a fashion choice—as such a high-risk activity, the earring was thought to be a heirloom of good luck, as well as a potential reward for anybody who was able to offer a respectful burial in the event of a pirates death.

After the renaissance, people’s affiliation to religion began to waver, and earrings once again became more visible amongst the wider populace, particularly amongst men who had suffered at the hands of war. If a young boy were to wear one earring, it would symbolise the loss of his father, while men with both ears pierced would symbolise the end of the family line, an orphan who should not be sent to war lest his family name disappear completely.

Earrings would go in and out of fashion from here on in, but with the high society elites and aristocracy of the early 1900s, demand for heavily jewelled styles became popular once more, teamed with lavish up-dos and matching necklaces. This era also introduced the clip-on earrings, thought to be more sanitary and interchangeable.

"This era also introduced the clip-on earrings, thought to be more sanitary and interchangeable"

Earrings in the 1950s and 60s

Woman with peace earrings

For those who didn’t have access to professional procedures, at-home piercing with your mother’s sewing needles (like the classic scene from Grease) was a common inevitability for 50s teens, with varying degrees of success. Older women were still favouring the clip-ons, adopting large button styles or plastic hoops.

In the LGBTQIA+, hippy and beatnik communities of the 60s, ear piercing was also thought to have become a way to recognise one another, although the “rules” of the particular placement symbolism have been widely disputed over the years. However, it’s ties to the Free Love Movement might go some way to explaining the moral panic of suburbia that still saw earring piercing as something of a pearl-clutching taboo, particularly amongst young men or “corrupted” teenage girls.

Earrings in the 1970s and 80s

By the 70s, legitimised ear piercing has become a bit more common, with department stores introducing the service courtesy of a nurse or otherwise trained professional. With the advent of both disco and the “working woman” aesthetic, women were coveting earrings that made a statement—big oversized hoops, tasselled teardrops, and gaudy gold twists to bring a look to life.

Elsewhere, the rise of punk culture was still keeping sewing needles and safety pins in business, a DIY approach to body modification to reflect the anti-authority ethos of the movement. Minor infection might ensue, but this was almost a badge of honour in an of itself, a refusal to conform to the sanitary conditions of a snooty upper-class salon or store.

Earrings in the 1990s and 00s

Claire's storefront

Although it had been operating as a Chicago business since 1961, the global rise of teen jewellery retailers Claire’s Accessories in the 1990s seems synonymous with the millennial generations interest in earrings. Girls who had managed to secure their parents permission could now get their ears pierced at a pocket-money friendly price, while those less fortunate could experiment with all manner of non-pierced styles - stick on earrings, magnetic clips, ear cuffs and more.

As the 00s millennium bug took fashion effect, cyberpunk styles boomed amongst all genders, drawing on some of the rebellion of the punk era but with a futuristic edge. Spiky rubber balls, zips, and pom-poms on chains were all common fodder, as well as stretched or flesh tunnel piercings, borrowed from the African tribal tradition.

Although piercing outside of the lobe had been common amongst indigenous communities for centuries, the nineties and noughties also allowed a mainstreaming of different styles of piercing—the tragus, rook, helix and daith to name but a few. At this point, piercing was readily available through tattoo and body modification shops, and could be completed swiftly and effectively – no more painful at-home attempts with the sewing needle.

"The nineties and noughties also allowed a mainstreaming of different styles of piercing—the tragus, rook, helix and daith to name but a few"

Earrings in the 2010s to today

Woman with red hoop earring

Our affection for earrings hasn’t waned much from the 00s—if anything, it’s only gotten bigger. It is now perfectly common to see people of all genders sporting earrings, and with more materials and technologies now available, you can make earrings out of basically anything. Lots of people seem to have been enjoying crafting their own through lockdown, or shopping online from independent stores that ethically source their metals and stones.

Many religions and cultures still see earrings as something of a childhood tradition—the Karnavedha, for example, is one of sixteen major sacraments of the Hindu faith, a symbolic ear piercing ceremony that normally takes place when a child is between 1 and five years of age, thought to open the inner ears to spiritual sounds. 

A tradition that dates back further than any of us really know, it’s a testament to earrings as something much more than a fashion accessory—they’re a way for us to feel connected and part of a wider culture, whether that be religion or music or something else entirely. Next time you fasten your studs or clip your hoops, take a moment to think about why you chose them—how far does their history really go?

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