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Hoop Earrings

Ear piercing is one of the oldest known forms of body modification and has been a part of human culture since the earliest hunter-gatherer tribes. The 5,000-year-old mummified body found frozen in an Austrian glacier in 1991 had pierced ears. Through the Neolithic Age, earrings were made mainly from stone, clay, bone and seashell. The oldest earrings from this period were unearthed in Inner Mongolia, and dated to between 7,500 and 8,200 years ago. They are jade hoops, and the archeologist behind their discovery said it was almost unimaginable that people in ancient times managed to achieve such a perfect pair of hoops without modern tools.

In various tribal cultures the ears were adorned with precious metals to ward off demons, as the belief was that they could enter the body through the ears. Such may well have been the origin of all hoops. Starting in the Bronze Age, around 3,000 BC, metalworking led to the production of more sophisticated earrings. Hoop earrings have been found in the royal graves of Persepolis in Iran dating to about 2,500 BC, and surviving walls from the palace show carved images of soldiers from various parts of the ancient Persian Empire wearing them as well. In Egypt large gold hoop earrings became popular during the 18th-20th dynasties. In Babylonia and Assyria finely crafted gold earrings were worn by men to denote rank. In Greece gold hoops often had tinkling pendants attached, and Roman women wore precious stones on their hoops to show off their status.

For centuries hoops were not worn by most European women. They preferred styles such as the girandole, and later the pendeloque, to balance the high hairdos and big wigs that were being worn. One group that did keep wearing hoops through the 19th century were sailors, among whom it was common belief that if their ship wrecked and their bodies washed up onshore, the person to find them would take the earring as payment for a proper burial. There was also a long-held belief that puncturing the earlobe was beneficial to increasing the acuity of eyesight, and pirates may have worn hoops for this reason.

Another group that famously maintained the wearing of hoops were the Roma people, or Gypsies. Gypsies are believed to have originated in the Punjab and Rajasthan regions of India, where elaborate gold hoops have been worn for centuries and are often a part of the bridal dowry. Hoop earrings became so identified with Gypsies as to even be referred to as “Gypsy hoops.”

For centuries African women have also worn hoops, which are found throughout the many tribal regions in a great variety of forms and materials. Women in Egypt traditionally wear 22-karat gold hoops, often decorated with many tiny gold discs that move and shimmer, especially on belly dancers. Latin American and Creole women, and sometimes men, also wore hoops right up into the 20th century. The popularity of hoops among so many seemingly “exotic” peoples may have helped keep the majority of class-conscious European and American women from wearing them.

It wasn’t until after World War II that European and American women would appropriate hoop earrings. Manufacturing techniques made earrings lighter and more comfortable, and Hollywood icons such as Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe helped popularize hoops by sending out an implicit message that they were earthy and sexy. In the 1960s, hoops made a big comeback in hippie culture, perhaps for the very same reasons that women had avoided wearing them so long. Men also started wearing hoops again, and by the 1980s, the male fashion of wearing a hoop in each ear took hold. Hip-hop culture inspired considerable style innovation in hoops, with “homegirls” taking to wearing oversized, oblong shapes, often with whimsical design elements. Hollywood continues to glamorize hoops, with diamond-studded ones seen on a number of celebrities walking the red carpet in the past few years.

Today the vernacular of hoop earrings has expanded to suit the many facets of modern life. Many women opt for more conservative hoops with smaller, simpler designs. The very notion that some hoops can be considered “conservative” indicates just how mainstream hoops have become. Whatever the style, it is likely that hoops will continue to be a fashion staple for women, if not men, for years to come.