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Published Sunday, January 25, 2015

Did Pirates Really Have Earrings?

AKA, Piercings in the Elizabethan Era, P-arrrrr-t One

The Elizabethan era stretched from 1558 to 1603, but most people abbreviate this to simply “the 1500s” and I will too because I’m lazy. During this time, men began wearing their hair in what might be termed the “Elizabethan mullet”. Sort of a balding in the front, party in the back extravaganza.


For men’s fashion, this meant exposed ears, and during this time period, jewelry was a lot more unisex, although the 1980’s earring rule somehow still applies: Only one ear on dudes should be pierced. Here’s a painting you might be familiar with:

I wasn't kidding about the #ElizabethanMullet. (Photo credit - Wikimedia Commons)

That’s some guy named Will Shakespeare, and if you’ve heard of anyone from the Elizabethan Era, you’ve heard of him. Some have cast doubt on whether this actually is a painting of Shakespeare. In 1864, J. Hain Friswell famously called the portrait out for making Shakespeare look dark skinned, Jewish, foreign and with ears “tricked out with earrings”. Many other scholars followed suit, saying the man in the portrait was “Italian looking” and that it couldn’t possibly be the “essentially English” Shakespeare. Which means it probably is, and those guys wish it was a tall, pale, thin lipped, non-earring wearing dude, which is a shame because Shakespeare looks boss as hell in this portrait.

But the thing which has arrested eyes for centuries is that shiny bit of gold in his ear. It stands out so hard that it draws the eye and nearly looks Photoshopped.

But it’s not. Check out Sir Walter Raleigh:

"Should I get a giant pearl, or a really enormous pearl?" -- Sir Walter Raleigh (Photo Credit - Wikimedia Commons)


According to A Dictionary of English Costume, it was fashionable for men to wear a simple gold ring, a jeweled earring, or a strand of black silk through the ear. In portraits, the black silk strands just look like gross worms, so it's good that didn't catch on.

According to Renaissance by Walter Hazen, men would go the extra mile and wear bracelets, necklaces, and perfume along with earrings.

But the people most associated with earrings during this time might not have worn them at all.

Google “pirate earrings” and you’ll find tons of results for “Why did pirates wear earrings?” as if it was a super common clothing choice for them. Like, along with an eye patch and a peg leg, you got your gold earring as part of your pirate starter pack, right?

Not necessarily.

Modern historians have cast doubt on the idea that pirates, at least during the Golden Age of Piracy (1650-1730, with a notable mention for Napster in the late 1990s. Just kidding.) ever wore earrings.

None of the contemporary sources, like books and illustrations, show pirates wearing earrings. Also, it was a fashion trend, like bracelets and dousing oneself with perfume, that was mainly for dandy Court-men who spent a lot of time wearing doublets and fluffy neckbands and hanging out with the Queen.

It might not have been the kind of thing that a blood thirsty sea swag would want to promote his image with. Also, wearing that much gold in your ear is like asking to lose an earlobe on a pirate ship.

An Elizabethan Era cabinet door, featuring someone who probably isn't a pirate, but who does have an earring. (Photo credit: MetMuseum)

So why do we think pirates wore gold hoops in their ears?

Howard Pyle, an illustrator and author in the 1800s, who wrote and illustrated a number of pirate themed books, put earrings on his pirates, and his images became iconic. Later, silent film stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. would sport earrings when they played pirates in the movies. This, more than anything else, probably gives us the modern impression that folks like Blackbeard might have sported some hoops.

That’s not to say that pirates never wore earrings. In Imponderables, pirate expert Toby Gibson says that after the Golden Age dried up, many pirates began working in Asian waters, and the practice of ear piercing may have caught on there.

Speculation? Sure. But who wants a pirate without a piercing?

Man with an earring -- unknown subject, but it's speculated he might be an African king. (Photo credit: MetMuseum)