From ancient Romans and William Shakespeare to Queen Elizabeth II and Britney Spears, we trace the journey of the piercing through history
When growing up in the 90s and 00s, giving parents a piercing scare was somewhat of a rite of passage. Whether insisting on a lip piercing after the release of Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” or coming home with a pierced navel to recreate Britney’s My Prerogative album cover; pop culture was awash with teen-influencing piercing inspiration. While that era is now known as the golden age of modern piercing, today’s trends show that bodily bars, rings, and studs are far from falling out of fashion. Your mum might pull a face if you come home with a piercing, but the general reactions to piercings are nowhere near as visceral today as they would have been in the not-so-distant past.
It was an unlikely British royal who became the face of piercing’s modern rebirth. No, not Prince Albert (his famed penis piercing is, in fact, a myth). Rather, the present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Although piercings were then considered crass, on coronation day Elizabeth wanted to exhibit the seldom-used earrings that were a part of the crown jewels. This, explains body piercer, anthropologist, and piercing historian Paul King, is when it all changed: “When the richest and arguably most powerful woman in the world had her ears pierced, it turned all prevailing notions about piercings on their head.” But of course, the English Queen was by no means the inventor of pierced skin.
Piercings have a long and rich, cultural and spiritual history. From the polar regions to the pacific islands, they go further back than Ancient Egyptians. “I can safely say piercings are pre-historic and human remains suggest body modification goes back 25,000 years,” King says. Subtle studs were worn in the ears of Ancient Romans and the penises of certain Romans were pierced too; seen as a way to control sexuality, penis piercing was believed to stop slaves procreating, stop athletes using up precious testosterone, and keep singer’s voices high-pitched.
Before Spain’s arrival in Mesoamerica, craftspeople manufactured jewellery for piercings en masse using jade and organic glasses. Even here on the British Isles, indigenous people wore ear stretchers before the days of the Roman invasion. It was the ideology that came along with the Romans that would prove to be the biggest blockade to piercing’s progression: Christianity.
Seen as pagan and subversive, piercings became a threat to Christian values. “The idea is that the body is made in God’s image and is perfect and shouldn’t be altered,” King explains. Dr Alexander Edmonds, anthropology professor at the university of Edinburgh explains this only intensified with the rise of protestantism in the UK, instilling a deep mistrust of anything overly flamboyant (associated with Catholics and Rome). “When people got pierced it could be seen as a rejection of that Judeo-Christian view of the body. It was practised by sex workers, by sailors, people who were marginal in some way,” he adds.
But notions of acceptability ebbed and flowed over time. Like many hip 17th century creatives, William Shakespeare had his ear pierced – but just 50 years later that would be seen as wildly seditious. As Britons marauded the globe, piercings became one more way colonialists could assert their supposed superiority and point out difference as an excuse to commit atrocities. Take India, where some Hindu worshippers had been piercing skin with hooks for thousands of years for warding off smallpox and honouring deities. With invasion, came the injection of British sensibilities says King. “Even the higher castes and classes of lighter-skinned Indians would look down on what became predominantly a Tamil practice, a darker skin practice,” he explains. Nose rings were popular in South Asia, and still are today. However, the legacy of piercings and disdain for them is tied up with racism, classism “and Britain’s famous stiff upper lip mentality,” adds Dr Edmonds.
In fact, it was an orientalist fascination with Indian women that catalysed the prevalence of nose piercings in the west. It began with a French performer named Mademoiselle Polaire. With a waist manipulated down to 14 inches, nose rings, and a pet pig, she was a singer who in the 1910s and 20s marketed herself as the ‘ugliest woman in the world’ – problematically, her look included using a South Asian-inspired nose ring to appear more exotic. Fast-forward to the 1960s, India was now independent, free-love was flowing in the west and young hippies began globe-trotting. “Again, nose rings started to pick up; it was definitely a mimicry of the practices of South Indian women having their noses pierced. Western women wanted to adopt that into fashion,” says King.
But the practice was still inextricably stuck to subcultures and procedures were mostly taking place underground. “The majority of people were piercing themselves or had a friend brave enough to do it for them. Safety precautions were varied, it resulted in lots of infections and inappropriate placements,” says Brian Skellie, veteran piercer and board member of the Association of Professional Piercers. In 1975, that all changed. It was the year the Gauntlet opened on Santa Monica Boulevard on the US’s west coast. Manned by early members of the BDSM and S&M community, the Gauntlet was the country’s first piercing shop. It was to be these groups and the punk community who would also make up the first clientele. For them, piercings acted as a way to signify affiliation with their communities. “When piercers from the Gauntlet did travelling piercing clinics at retail BDSM shops, the community would line up out the door for appointments,” says King. It was fitting then, that it was a gay man named Jim Ward, dubbed the grandfather of the modern piercing movement (and owner of the Gauntlet), who brought piercing out of the closet.
A few years later, Britain’s very own Jim, a piercer by the name of Mr Sebastian set up shop in south London. Throughout the 70s and 80s, subcultures and piercing went hand-in-hand. Nipples, septum, genitals, pretty much every piece of skin you could pinch could now be pierced. “From dog collars to septum rings, Malcom McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, these designers borrowed from the BDSM and punk communities,” says King. This would set the stage for the 90s, which came to be known as the golden decade of piercing.
“We don’t do the same quantities of piercings today. In the mid-90s, a piercer might be doing up to 50,” King tells us. Now, music was a driving force. Think Blink 182’s Travis Barker, The Prodidgy’s Keith Flint and The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan. But there was one pop cultural moment that was arguably the most important publicity stunt for piercers everywhere: Aerosmith’s 1993 music video for the song “Cryin’”. In it, Alicia Silverstone (not yet famous at the time) gets her navel pierced. “It became the video of the year on MTV,” said King, who featured in it himself pretending to pierce a 16-year-old Silverstone. “Every 15 minutes that damn video played, and so every 15 minutes people saw a navel piercing.” Not only did it spotlight the fashion, but also demonstrated piercing’s accessibility. “We went from people thinking navel piercing was complicated and slow to heal to suddenly everyone wanting a navel piercing because, well, it was cool,” explains Skellie.
Thanks to trail-blazing piercers at the Gauntlet and Mr Sebastian’s, piercing was safer and easier than ever. But not everybody was on board. “There were all kinds of pushback from parents not wanting their kids to get their navels pierced… from the mid-90s through the mid-2000s there was a barrage of sensationalist articles about the horrors of piercing,” points out King. But the controversial nature of the practice is also part of what makes it so appealing, especially amongst teenagers. “It can feel rebellious, can be a form of self-expression,” says Tracey Cannon, a piercer at London’s Sacred Gold studio. “But it also helps people belong and form identity, when I pierce people for the first time they often say they feel part of the club now.”
In a post-Aerosmith piercing culture, that club was now made up of supermodel trendsetters like Naomi Campbell, who had her naval and nipples pierced by British piercer, Teena Marie, and pretty much every woman in a music video at the time. Despite celebrities leading the way, Skellie and King, both piercers at the time, explained there was a sense people were getting pierced for themselves. Often a private affair, piercings weren’t always visible. Genital piercings became popular and boundaries were pushed. But by the 2000s, stigma lessened. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and all their teenage followers were flaunting Y2K diamantés in their bellies and noses.
Piercings were perforating all realms of pop culture and becoming ever more elaborate; they were even present in couture. In 1997, models on Christian Dior’s catwalk paraded oversized ‘Maharajah earrings’ and in 2012, a Givenchy campaign saw models wear chandelier jewellery in their septums and earlobes. Today, piercing trends are driven by big profiles online. “In 2016, Kylie Jenner did a photoshoot showing her nipple piercings through her lingerie and I noticed a significant rise in people coming in for nipple piercings,” says Cannon.
But despite this popularity surge, Cannon explains we’ve got some way to go: “There are still taboos, particularly within some workplaces and school environments. I see clients carefully choosing placements and jewellery that is ‘more discreet’ and can be easily hidden for these reasons.” Citing generational differences as the issue, she is optimistic this might one day change. As for the future? “The industry has evolved massively over the past 20 years and I think it will continue to grow. Safety procedures will only improve and multiple piercing curations (like the curated ear will get more popular. My clients love investing in their jewellery collection and enjoy the ongoing project of adding new additions.” One thing is certain, piercing is an ancient trend that isn’t getting old anytime soon.