Earrings are one of the oldest forms of human adornment. For almost as long as we’ve been roaming this earth, we’ve been poking holes in our ears and sticking things in them. There are references to earrings in the Bible, the world’s oldest mummified body had its ear pierced (so did King Tut), and some of the earliest evidence of earrings can be traced back to 9th century BC, or around 10,000 years ago. They were worn all over the world by men and women alike. (And by cats in Egypt, too.)
Hoop earrings have a particularly long and diverse history, spanning many different cultures and periods. They originated in Africa, and could also be found across regions we now consider Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. A scan of current museum collections reveals that they were made of all sorts of materials, from bone, shells, and jade to gold, silver, and bronze. As time went on, their design only became more intricate and ornate, but even some of the oldest examples of hoop earrings are stunning in their craftsmanship.
Like any form of fashion, earrings have always been both decorative and symbolic in their use. They could represent wealth and power, affiliation to a certain social or ethnic group, as well as the wearer’s age and marital status. In ancient Egypt, royals wore large gold hoops to flaunt their status, for example, while in ancient Persia, soldiers wore hoop earrings in each ear, perhaps as a good luck charm. Julius Caesar wore hoop earrings when he held power in ancient Rome. Meanwhile, Greek goldsmiths embellished their hoops with gemstones and molded them in various shapes to honor the gods. In many cultures, earrings were also worn to ward off evil spirits.
Arguably the greatest power that earrings possess, though, is the ability to make the person wearing them look good — no matter who they are, where they lived, or when. (Well, at least according to the artifacts we have.) They frame the face and bring out the eyes; what better purpose could earlobes serve than to host them? But because earrings are, in part, decoration, they have also always been susceptible to trends. As collars grew taller, for example, or hats lower, or hairstyles more flowing, they faded from view. In Europe, pirates — and maybe William Shakespeare — were perhaps the most notable figures wearing hoop earrings, specifically, for ages.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that hoop earrings really had their moment again. In the 1960s and 70s in particular, they became a symbol of empowerment, particularly for Black women embracing Afrocentric styles. The bigger the better. (And the smaller, the more conservative.) Angela Davis was photographed wearing hoop earrings on the cover of Time magazine in 1971. Wearing hoop earrings was also a way for gay men to signal their sexual orientation. In the 80s, they became flashier and thicker. Sade, with her hair slicked back into a braid, became the de facto gold hoops icon. And in the ‘90s, they became synonymous with musical artists like Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, and many others. By then, they were also a signature part of “Chola” style, a subculture populated by working-class Mexican American women in Southern California.
Because of the hoop earring’s modern associations with working class Black and Latinx communities, racist and classist stigmas have long been attached to the style. Designers and wearers have also been accused of cultural appropriation for their adoption of it, or for blindly co-opting an accessory — say, nameplate hoops — that was meaningful to a community other than their own. In 2017, “White girls, take off your hoops!” was spray painted on the Pitzer college campus in California in response to the fashion trend.
Today, hoop earrings are a constant. They will never go out of style, yet are still, of course, susceptible to the tides of it. Their symbolism only continues to grow, in addition to their fans. As in their earliest days, they are embraced by a diverse range of people from all over the world, of all different backgrounds and aesthetic preferences. Next time you put a pair on, consider their inherent beauty, but also their history.
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