“Yet for thy sake I will not bore mine eare,
To hang thy durtie silken shoo-tires there.”
– Christopher Marlowe
In the time of James I (early 1600s), it became the fashion to wear a strand or three of black silk through the left ear. It was a bit of a high-class dandy-ish fashion practiced by nobility (hence Christopher Marlowe’s jab above), but for a few decades, it was huge, it spanned countries, and even continents. There was a time when everyone who was anyone was stringing black silk through just their left lobe.
I couldn’t find any stories of nobles who accidentally got their right lobe strung, but I assume they exist.
It was such a big deal that a famous brawl broke out over it in Court. And by Court, I mean the King’s Court of James I, where all the nobility were hanging out.
The tale, as told in Peck’s Desiderata Curiosa:
“In 1612 (10th James I), Mr. Edward Hawley of Gray’s Inn, [was] coming to Court one day, Maxwell (a Scotsman) led him out of the room by a black string which he wore in his ear, a fashion then much in use: but this had like to have caused warm blood. Not only Gray’s Inn Society, but all the gentry in London thought themselves concerned in the affront, and Hawley threatened to kill Maxwell wherever he met him if he refused to fight, which so frightened the king that he sent for the benchers and made up the quarrel.”
So in 1612, you just didn’t grab a guy by his black silk earstrings. That was serious enough to cause all the gentry to get involved. There was a time when I would have made a joke about congress, but honestly this seems as reasonable as anything we have going on right now.
How big was this trend?
The young Henry, Prince of Wales and (potential) future king of England had the strings put in, after a trip to Denmark, where it
was widely rumored that the trend was born. For the record, Henry died of typhoid and didn’t become king, but nobody knew that would happen yet so this was a big deal. It made it the cool thing to do and soon everyone was in on it.
Anne of Denmark was painted with them, and so was Elizabeth of Bohemia, if that tells you anything (I had to google them, but they were a big deal)
The trend actually spread to America, which wasn’t feeling as revolutionary yet. David Fischer in Albion’s Seed mentions high-born Virginia gentlemen wearing elegant black silk through one earlobe. The trend seems to have lasted a bit longer in America than it did in Europe.
Planche, in his Cyclopedia of Costume states that found no reference to this trend after the restoration of Charles II, so that one more thing you can blame Oliver Cromwell for (History Deep Cut).
What’s interesting about this is that it isn’t the only reference to silk threads and piercing you’ll find in these pages. Nipple piercings done in the 1890s in France and England often used silk thread as a holder while the piercing healed (Silk thread being more flexible than gold wire). The process of piercing is told there in detail.
So this whole trend may have been ironic in nature, like people wearing tapers after they stretch today, with the silk threads being part of the piercing process and simply being left in place for show. It’s also notable that the practice of wearing a pearl teardrop in one ear remained popular for men for a very long time. Also, that woodcut above from Hampton Court? It’s long been rumored to be of some nobody named Shakespeare. Like all the images of Shakespeare it’s never been corroborated.