Fashionably unique: How tattoos and piercings dominate the fashion landscape

By Hayley White

I got my first body piercing in 2014. I was 15 at the time, and desperately wanted to get my navel pierced. Of course, I already had my ear lobes pierced like most young girls, but I really wanted this one. Not only because I thought it would make me feel cool and confident, but because I wanted to strike out and be different. What I did not realise at the time, however, was that this piercing was a steppingstone, a gateway. It was the first step towards forming my identity via body modifications - tattoos and piercings - of which I now have many.

Tattoos and piercings are at the heart of many cultural traditions across the globe. They have also become central to popular culture and fashion in pretty much every Western country. Things that constitute fashion come and go every 20 years – known as the 20-year rule. The 20-year rule is a cyclical movement with 5 stages: introduction, increase, peak, decline, and obsolescence. Akin to any other style of fashion, piercings and tattoos are just as likely to run through this cycle, falling in and out of popularity as time goes on.

 

By Hayley White

I got my first body piercing in 2014. I was 15 at the time, and desperately wanted to get my navel pierced. Of course, I already had my ear lobes pierced like most young girls, but I really wanted this one. Not only because I thought it would make me feel cool and confident, but because I wanted to strike out and be different. What I did not realise at the time, however, was that this piercing was a steppingstone, a gateway. It was the first step towards forming my identity via body modifications – tattoos and piercings – of which I now have many.

Tattoos and piercings are at the heart of many cultural traditions across the globe. They have also become central to popular culture and fashion in pretty much every Western country. Things that constitute fashion come and go every 20 years – known as the 20-year rule. The 20-year rule is a cyclical movement with 5 stages: introduction, increase, peak, decline, and obsolescence. Akin to any other style of fashion, piercings and tattoos are just as likely to run through this cycle, falling in and out of popularity as time goes on.

Shane Johnston, owner of Streetwise Fine Piercing in Newmarket, opened his studio in 1995. He tells me that piercings have come in and out of popularity for a while, and some have even fallen out completely. “Can you believe that it’s gone round the full cycle and people are getting nose rings again?” he says and adds: “But they go back a long way. We were doing nose rings back in the ‘90s. So, they’re always a cool one and we do a few of those. Some come and go, and some just kind of stay. Eyebrows: we hardly ever do them now, but they were huge. ‘Septums’ have always been around; we’ve done those from a long way back.”

Photo: Kilian Seiler, Unsplash

Ear piercings, facial piercings, and tattoos (both tribal and Western) have a mixed history. Depending on where in the ancient world, piercings and tattoos could mean wealth, high status, and beauty; or they could be the mark of slaves and the lower class. In Ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, both men and women would wear decorative ear piercings to display wealth. Similarly, in Northwest America, only wealthy Tlingit peoples wore ear piercings because the procedure was so expensive. The ancient Hebrews bore ear and nose piercings to mark the wealthy and the enslaved.

Septum piercings hold incredible cultural significance and have very much come back in fashion recently. Many cultures around the world are known for putting bones, tusks, scarab beetle horns and even sweet potatoes in their septum – in the case of the Kanji of highland Papua New Guinea. For most of these cultures, their warriors used septum piercings to appear more fearsome.

In some Western cultures throughout history, tattoos have been frowned upon. Other cultures have shunned tattoos for racist and stereotypical reasons. Nowadays, however, tattooing is a big part of popular Western culture.

Indigenous peoples have been tattooing men and women a lot longer than people of the Western world. Māori men and women might sport ta moko, facial moko, and moko kauae. The facial moko and moko kauae for women have recently been reclaimed. Both are now worn proudly by many Māori men and women. They are not the only culture with facial tattoos, either. North American Inuit women receive facial tattoos on their chin at first menstruation, and the indigenous Japanese Ainu tattoo a woman’s lips and hands when they are married.

Discoveries of ancient tattooing instruments date back to the Upper Palaeolithic period, 40,000–10,000 years ago. Tattoos from 4,000 years ago have been identified on the remains of mummified Egyptian Priestesses who worshipped the fertility god, Hathor of Thebes.  Tattooed mummies dating back 3,300 years ago have also been identified in Libya. Britons, Goths, Picts, Iberians, Gauls, and Scots – all considered by the Romans to be barbarians – were reported as having tattoos as well (Davies, 2020).

So, while tattoos and piercings have always existed in cultures across the world, there is still a stigma around them that young people these days seem to be trying to get rid of. Interestingly, Shane says that in the first few years of opening Streetwise, it was mainly older men who would come in and get pierced. He tells me that there were a lot of piercings ‘below the belt’ as well as nipples and such – which were very taboo. Piercings in general were not really talked about.

“In the very early days, everybody knew that if you talked about it, you’d be persecuted. It wasn’t the thing that it is now. Things like nipple piercings, nose rings, and especially septum piercings have come back around and have had a massive revival,” he says.

One of the biggest things about tattoos and piercings in fashion is that we use them to redefine who we are and how we present ourselves to others. Just like clothes and accessories, the tattoos and piercings we wear are some of our strongest forms of self-expression. For some, tattoos are super important and meaningful, telling us a story of people’s lives.

Also, much like clothing, the style, placement, subject, and meaning of tattoos have been proven to be highly gendered. Sanders (1988, as cited in Watson, 1998) found that men tended to wear tattoos on their arms and other places that were very exposed, as opposed to women, who would get tattoos on their hips, legs, back, and lower abdomen. Possibly, tattoos were more stigmatising for women, so they tended towards private placement to avoid copping too much judgement. The stigma around tattoos and piercings still exists today, especially in the employment industry.

It is common knowledge that people with visible tattoos can have limited job opportunities and are less likely to get hired. In 2019, there was a big uproar around Air New Zealand insisting their flight attendants cover up their traditional Māori ta moko.

Flight attendants are not the only ones who struggle to have their tattoos accepted in the workplace. Healthcare professionals, teachers, office workers, and bankers, to name a few, all have to deal with restrictions. Piercings are similarly considered just as unprofessional, with workplaces limiting the piercings employees are allowed to have. Facial piercings sometimes lead employers to make negative assumptions about their potential employee.

Thankfully, these kinds of judgements seem to be taking a backburner. As more and more people choose to get piercings and tattoos, it becomes harder for employers to discriminate how potential employees adorn themselves. It has also made it easier for people to get them without worrying what others think. Shane agrees, saying that piercings are becoming more accepted. “It needed to happen,” he admits. “Somebody being persecuted for a ring in their ear or two rings in their ear – whatever it is – and others having a go at them over that, that’s a bit ridiculous anyway. I’m glad that it’s now in fashion and it’s okay. People can just be how they want to be. And people always should’ve been able to do that.” He says that when people get piercings, it is a self-esteem boost that can get crushed when people judge them.

It is the same thing for tattoos. “You feel good about it, and that’s been a motivating thing forever,” Shane says. “It just makes people feel cool when they’ve got them. And just so many other people never understood that.”

 

Sources: 1. Piercings, plugs and jewellery, Adornment: What self-decoration tells us about who we are 2. ‘Why Did You Put That There?’ Gender, Materialism and Tattoo Consumption. NA – Advances in Consumer Research, acrwebsite.org

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