History of Earrings in a Nutshell

I've recently gotten my first vintage clip on earrings despite the fact that my ears are pierced. I've come to understand that ear piercings have not always been as self-evident as they are today, so I decided to find out about the history of earrings and why clip on earrings are so big in the second hand and vintage markets.

Ancient mural showing earrings
Ear piercings were probably the first ways we have modified our bodies. Earrings have been traced as far back as 3000BCE. For example, when studying the mummy and burial chamber of pharaoh Tutankhamun, they found that even his ears were pierced. The women of the Ancient Greece and Roman Empire wore pearl earrings to show their status. A lot later, in the Middle Ages, ear piercings were used by gentlemen and courtiers all over Europe. The Catholic chuch came to ban piercings and brand them sinful and wicked. For most of history, ear piercing were worn mostly by so called low lifes; prostitutes, thives, pirates and sailors. Sailors got their ear pierced as a mark of having sailed accross the world or over the Equator.

Painting of a 15th century man with an ear piercing

Despite this ban and contempt, in the following centuries the wilder and dandier sort of gentlemen continued to wear earrings. They used to only pierce one ear as a rather rakish sign. Traveling the world taught the Europeans that the primitive tribes around the world also liked to pierce their ears. Women's fashion was dominated by hats, wigs and large collars and such that there was no room for earrings.

Painting of a 19th century Italian woman wearing earrings
Finally in the 19th century, staring in Italy, women's fashion gave room for earrings when the collars were left in history. Even noble women began wearing through-the-ear earrings at that time to boast their husband's wealth. When the hats and bonnets were left to smaller use, come the 20th century women all but adopted the earrings to themselves. However, the thought of pierced ears being a sign of lowlifes came back. Decent girls did not have their ears pierced, but earrings were still used and loved. This is why it's almost impossible to find vintage earrings other than clip ons or screw ons from 1920-1950. At that time, clip ons were also thought to be more hygienic.

Clip on earrings on a 1930s acctress

With the development of the youth culture in the 1950's ear piercings came back. In the beginning no one really offered that service and there were no where you could go to have that safely done. That's why teenagers often pierced each other's ears, there's even a scene depicting it in the movie Grease that's set in the 1950's!

Over the centuries ear piercings have been like a double edged sword: for some they have been a way to stand out from the crowd, for some they have been something to avoid and a sign of worthlesness. Only in the very last decades earrings and piercings in general have become as we know them now: a mostly feminine and a nearly expected way of wearing jewelry.
Piercing ears in the movie Grease

When delving into vintage fashion, I think clip on earrings have a style that pierced earrings can't replicate. When worn correctly, clip on earrings can be a comfortable and easy way to get a retro look no matter if you have pierced ears or not!


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