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Take a look in any high street shop, Instagram account or YouTube haul and you’re bound to see a pair or two of bright, statement earrings. You would think that earrings have been around forever – and you would be right. From studs to hoops, earrings can be traced from 2000 BCE right up to today’s fashion. Over the years it has found itself a cultural symbol for progressive movements, a marker of profession, even a religious rite of passage. So just how has the earring transformed into the essential accessory we know and love today?
Archaeologists estimate that earrings emerged during the Bronze Age (between 3000 to 2700 BC) in the Greek islands, ancient Persia, Rome and Egypt. In ancient Greece, it was fashionable to wear hoop earrings with conical pendants, while prostitutes frequently donned them as ornaments. Meanwhile, archaeological evidence found in other places has further proven the popularity of earrings. In Persepolis, carved images of soldiers wearing earrings were discovered on the empire’s surviving walls. When archaeologists dug up Tutankhamun’s tomb (the ancient Egyptian pharaoh of 1300 BC), they found that his ears were pierced. It is thought that the children of Egypt got their ears pierced and then filled with gold discs, much like modern ear plugs.
The religious history of earrings also spans diverse ethnicities and countries. As part of a Dharmic rite known as Karnavedha in the Hindu tradition, most girls and some boys would get their ears pierced before they are about five years old. Most men reaching young adulthood in some Asian countries get their ears pierced as a ritual passage, including in Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Laos. Meanwhile, the Bible has several references to ear piercings, especially amongst slaves.
Fast forward to the English Renaissance. Earrings were a must-have item among the courtiers and gentleman. Yes, I said gentlemen. Sailors would wear earrings at sea, using them to cover the costs of their funeral should they die. The trend then caught wind among the courts, with even Shakespeare being pictured wearing a silver hoop. Earrings subsequently become emblematic of poets at the time and merged into fashion.
By the late 1950s or early 1960s, earrings re-emerged in the fashion world. There was no commercial market for it, no place where teens could go. So, teenage girls would instead pierce their ears at home, usually in groups of friends at “ear piercing parties”. Think of that scene in Grease, where Sandy gets her ears pierced by Rizzo and you’ve got the picture. This changed by the mid-1960s, wherein some physicians started to offer ear piercings as a service, and so earrings became adopted into the day-to day life of western society.
With the gay rights and counterculture movement of the late 1960s, earrings were adopted by men in hippie and gay communities. To wear an earring on the right would typically mean the man was gay, whilst left would indicate he was straight. This expanded in the early 1970s, becoming common among women to have pierced ears – even expected. With this growing market, shops around the world rushed to get in on the money. They would occasionally even hold ear piercing events, sponsored by earring manufacturers, where they would bring in a trained nurse to conduct piercings. Following this in the late 1970s was the rise in amateur piercings within the punk rock community, which then evolved into all male music performers. Music translates into fashion, fashion into modern society, and the rest is history.
So, the ear-piercing trend has grown from just one or two piercings in the lobe. A variety of specialized cartilage piercings have since become popular, including the tragus, helix and industrial piercing. It is now common for both men and women to have pierced ears. Nowadays, earrings have become less about social status or sexuality, and more simply an accessory to wear.