From Elegant Ancient Accessory to Symbol of Black and Latina Culture, The History of Gold Hoop Earrings
As ubiquitous as red lipstick or the plain white t-shirt, the subtle sheen of a Gold hoop earring can be seen glowing from the ears of many women, wherever you are. But, where did this cult accessory come from?
In fact, Gold hoops big and small didn’t just become a cultural phenomenon over night. Revealing an extensive history, Gold hoops are more than just a piece of jewellery, they have become an entrenched symbol of womanhood, oppression and freedom, an accessory of resistance and reclamation. In fact, archeological findings have found that Gold hoops resonated with women thousands of years ago, and were worn by a plethora of ancient societies and civilisations. And today, they are a vintage classic worn by both men and women all over the world.
Below, we delve deeper into the cavernous history of Gold hoop earrings, exploring how they have altered from antiquity to the present day.
Ancient Santorini Fresco of A Girl Picking Flowers, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Gold Hoop Earrings
Although we cannot accurately decipher and pinpoint the first society where people wore gold hoop earrings, it is clear that they were adopted by a myriad of cultures in both the west and east thousands of years ago.
Archaeological evidence has found Gold hoop earrings in ancient frescos and tombs in as early as the ancient Sumerians 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, which today is the regions of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. This evidence shows that this society was incredibly sophisticated for its time, thriving upon arts and culture. Both specialist jewellery and ancient historians surmise that the ancient Sumerians had exceptionally skilled jewellers creating pieces from 4 precious metals and encrusting jewellery with gemstones. It won’t be a surprise then that Gold hoop earrings were therefore favoured by the ancient Egyptians and ancient Persians.
Egyptian Gold Hoop Earring, c.1648-1540 B.C, Source - Metropolitan Museum of Art
It is believed that both men and women in ancient Egyptian royalty wore hoop earrings, including Nefertiti, Hatsheput, Tutankhamen and Cleopatra. For the Egyptians, wearing Gold earrings were incredibly symbolic. To them, Gold represented the warmth and light of the sun, believed to the literal flesh of their ancient Gods and deities. The circular shape of hoop earrings also possessed powerful symbolic potency. Circles were inherently connected to nature representing the diurnal undulating rhythms of life.
This visceral belief meant that, of course, both royalty and religious members wore Gold hoop earrings to keep them closer to the God’s and nature. Plus, this philosophical and religious way of viewing jewellery translated to many paganistic ancient societies. Not to mention, as jewellery was also designed for its beauty and was a form of self-adornment, Gold hoops were created to enhance a person’s beauty and sexuality.
Greek Goat Head Hoop Earrings, c.350-200 BC, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
In ancient Roman and Greek societies Gold hoop earrings flourished also. Frescoes in Santorini dating to 1600 BC showed women wearing hoop earrings and archaeological evidence from the Bronze age Minoan civilisation on the Aegan islands and isle of Crete found Gold, Silver and Bronze hoop earrings.
Ancient Greek Gold hoop earrings were both plain and ornate, with some shaped as lion’s and ram’s heads. Like the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Greeks saw these earrings as a way for them to express their devotion to the Gods. In fact, it is believed that they actually hung pendants from the earring hoop to pay homage and respect to their Gods. For example, for expectant parents, to honour Hera the goddess of childbirth and fertility women wore cow head pendants, and to honour Zeus, men wore bulls heads to enhance their virility.
Black and White Photograph of a Pair of Greek Gold Hoop Earrings with Erotes Riding Doves, c.3rd Century BC, Source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art
As trade links strengthened between these societies ancient Romans adopted these Greco and Egyptian symbols in their hoop earrings, including the goddess Isis, snakes, grapes and the knot of Hercules.
Gold hoops were also integral to the cultures and civilisations of South Asia. By 2000 BCE traders were moving back and forth between the ports of India, Sumer and Egypt, and there were established trading ports between India, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Elaborate and ornate Gold hoop earrings were intrinsic to both tribal and temple jewellery in these countries. Ornamentation at every part of the body was custom for worshippers and temple dancers, with statuettes of Gods adorned with glittering jewels. Today, this custom still remains. Although Gold hoops are now also worn as a fashion choice as well as one of worship and respect. Many ethnic groups within both India and Vietnam, specifically the Hmong women in Vietnam and the Gadaba tribe in India, still wear the traditional handcrafted Gold hoop earring styles that were worn by their ancestors hundreds and thousands of years ago.
The 4th century Nubian civilisation has also contributed to the popularity and status of hoop earrings. The Nubians and Egyptians had strong trade links, which led to many overlaps in their jewellery. Like the Egyptians, the Nubians understood the amuletic and symbolic role that jewellery possessed.
Pair of Nubians From the Royal Palace Near to the Temple of Medinet Habu, c.1182-1151 BC, Source - Wikimedia Commons
Gold jewellery itself was considered to be sacred, and there were many pieces that were enamelled and encrusted with rare gemstones. The Gold hoop earrings that are central to Nubian culture were actually worn thrice on one ear! Each of these earrings are crescent shaped with embossed geometric, bird and flora designs.
From this, it is clear that Gold hoops are deeply entrenched in numerous histories around the world.
Antique Gold Hoop Earrings
As we arrive in the early modern period, Gold hoop earrings were still incredibly popular.
In the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods, many men wore small singular Gold hoop earrings, especially amongst sea-voyagers, which has contributed to the stereotypical costumes of pirates. One of the most famous portraits of William Shakespeare, known as the Chandos portrait shows Shakespeare wearing a singular small Gold hoop earring on his ear.
Portrait of William Shakespeare, c.1600-1610, Source - National Portrait Gallery
It was believed that men who wore these earrings had an adventurous and unconventional disposition. What’s more, the reason as to why sea-voyageurs wore these Gold earrings were that if they died at sea, the earring could be found (as Gold doesn’t tarnish) and could cover their funeral costs!
During the 18th century and the 19th century, although Gold hoop earrings were a fashionable item, other earrings styles like the pendeloque, drop and dormeuse were more popular. This is because of the introduction of Paste gems, fashions and new jewellery techniques. So, Gold hoop earrings took a step back. However, the Etruscan revival and Archaeological revival periods in the Victorian era saw a renewed interest in these classics.
Italian Gold Sheet Hoop Earrings, c.1800-1867, Source - The Victoria and Albert Museum
Etruscan revival and Archaeological revival jewellery was the emergence of neoclassical designs and techniques that were popular in ancient societies. These pieces were crafted from high carat gold and included gemstones that were popular in ancient jewellery. The reason as to why these periods were favoured were due to the highly publicised archeological discoveries made by the British empire. This also saw a resurgence of Egyptian revival and Renaissance Holbein-esque pieces. Therefore, the Gold hooped earrings with granulated and filigree details became commonplace amongst the most fashionable of society yet again! What’s more, in European states and cities, Gold hoops were a form of jewellery that could be worn by people of all classes, and they were especially a staple within 19th century Italian women’s wardrobes.
The 1920’s were the pivotal moment in which Gold hooped earrings started to become the popular accessory which we see today. We believe that this was due to a variety of factors. Similar to the Victorian era, Egyptian revival jewellery was ‘a la mode’ during this period, and there were increasing influences from African jewellery too due to colonisation.
An exemplary portrayal of this is the legendary Vanity Fair photoshoot with Josephine Baker in 1929. The famous dancer’s silhouette is enhanced by the natural chiaroscuro of 1920’s and 1930’s photography, but here you can see the faint outline of large hooped earrings.It is believed that the jewellery she was wearing around her neck and suspended from her earlobes was created by Jean Dunand who was inspired by the strong geometry in African textiles. These jewels were also colloquially known amongst their contemporaries as “giraffe” jewels.
Another reason as to why Gold hooped earrings were incredibly popular during the Art Deco period was because they were emblematic of freedom, and were the perfect complement to the short bobbed hairstyles that were in vogue at the time. The dynamic swinging movement of the hoops themselves were favoured by dancers and performers like Baker, as they would come alive on the dancefloor!
This visual impact that hooped earrings provided on the dancefloor became integral to its iconic status, as it was the earring of choice during the 1970’s disco era.
Vintage and Modern Gold Hoop Earrings
As mentioned above, Gold hoop earrings became the cult timeless accessory that we recognise today from the 1970s. It is no secret that the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s had huge cultural impact, and within each century Gold hoop earrings shifted amongst different communities. The urban nightlife scene in the 1970’s drastically changed club culture, and large oversized Gold hoop earrings swung from the earlobes of many partygoers. This easily transcended to the dance pop era of 1980s and the 1990s where Gold hoop earrings also became part of the rap and R&B scenes.
Most importantly, these iconographic dance and music scenes were popularised by African American, Hispanic and Latin American communities. Wearing these glimmering Gold hoops gave them a sense of unity and soon was integral to their culture, dress and identity in an overwhelmingly white-washed landscape.This is explored by Tanisha C.Ford who writes in Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style and the Global Politics of Soul: “In African-inspired clothing, large hoop earrings and sporting afro’s and cornrow braids, Americans and Britons of African descent envisioned soul-style as a symbolic baptism in freedom waters through which they could be reborn, liberated from cultural and social bondage of their slave and colonial past.”
From the 1970’s onwards Gold hoops started to be a target for internalised racist attitudes and anxieties surrounding race, with beliefs that those who wore them were “ghetto”, a derogatory classist and racist term. In the 1980’s and 1990s, hoop earrings were also associated with “Cholas”, a subculture that emerged in working class Mexican neighbourhoods in Southern California.
This is why, when Gold earrings started to be worn by white women and “reinvented” by white designers as trendy, Gold hooped earrings became a target for cultural appropriation debates. Cultural appropriation is one of the most contested issues within the fashion industry today. It is where one culture adopts elements of another culture, yet it is controversial when members of a dominant culture appropriate from disadvantaged minority cultures. In the case of Gold hooped earrings, when worn on a woman of colour they were seen negatively, yet when worn on a white woman it was seen as positive and trendy.
There have been many recent articles written about Gold hoops as a charged example of cultural appropriation. This debate reached fever point in March 2017 when at Pitzer College, the message “White girls, take off your hoops” was spray painted on the side of a dormitory. This was followed by an email thread sent around the entire student body of Pitzer college by Alegria Martinez, a member of the Latinx Student Union which wrote “The art was created by myself and a few other WOC (women of colour) after being tired and annoyed with the recurring theme of white women appropriating styles...the black and brown bodies who typically wear hooped earrings are typically viewed as ghetto and not taken seriously. Because of this, I see our big hoop earrings serving as symbols [and] as an act of everyday resistance.”
This is further substantiated by Sandra E.Garcia who wrote in the New York Times article Why Can’t I Quit You Hoops: “Gold hoops - thick, wide, bamboo-style, small or thin, were an extension of our sass, our style and us… I felt that wearing large hoops would make me seem too loud, too visible, too ghetto, too black” and Bianca Nieves in Refinery 29 “As a Puerto Rican born in the states who grew up in Puerto Rico, there was was certain way I perceived women who wore Gold hoop earrings, influenced by everything from school to the media. I had to unlearn and deconstruct these feelings.”
Within these communities reclaiming their hoops, Gold hoop earrings have become a charged accessory for activism, symbolising strong women and a surging political voice across the globe. Jewellery, like Gold hoops, has been used for centuries as a powerful identity marker, still worn by women of colour.
This does beg the question though, can you still wear Gold hoops if you aren’t from or within these communities? Every person will have their own opinion on this matter. It is clear that, in some cases like afros and native american headdresses that these should not be worn by other people outside of these cultures as they are so inherent, and especially in the latter they possess strong spiritual and religious significance. Yet, as Gold hoops are a piece of jewellery that did originate in ancient cultures, and it has been a popular accessory for centuries in both western and eastern religious and mainstream fashion, the line does become more blurred.
It is important to be aware of these cultural conversations surrounding dress and jewellery, so we can appreciate and learn from the past and recognise how these pieces are particularly important to some cultural identities. No matter your opinion, it is clear that Gold hoops provide more than just an illuminating insight into the fascinating world of jewellery history.
If you would like to read more about the cultural appropriation debates surrounding Gold hoops to create your own opinion, we have collated some articles and blogs below for you to read: