There’s a secondhand story about Harry Styles that should be an example to all of us. Maybe you’ve heard it: the tale of the singer piercing his own ear the day before this year’s Met Gala because he wanted to wear a dangly pearl earring on the red carpet. Stylist Harry Lambert told Vogue that he discovered the earring—a bulbous pearl dangling from a bee-shaped gold post, made by Gucci—just days before the event and texted Styles, suggesting he pierce his ears to wear them. “Let’s do it,” Styles responded. “He said he pierced it himself,” Eva Chen, Instagram’s head of fashion partnerships, recounted in a live Q&A in May. “I don’t know if I believe him. But he said he pierced it himself using, like, a needle.”
In the last few years, man-celebrities from all walks of life have succumbed to the allure of the dangly earring. They’ve been worn by Lil Nas X, YouTuber Jake Paul, soccer star Neymar Jr., and two of the three brothers Beckham. Young Thug likes to wear a pair of glittery diamond chains that hang nearly to his shoulders. Park Ji-min from South Korean boy band BTS sports so many variations on the hoop-chain-cross formula that a cottage industry of replicas has arisen on AliExpress. This list would be incomplete without Lil B, who appeared on ESPN’s SportsNation in 2015 wearing a floppy sun hat and huge, beaded earrings that swung like epaulettes as he discussed the curse he put on James Harden. With surprising speed, dangly earrings have become an emblem of Advanced Men’s Style—but the look is older than you think.
The trend traces most obviously to George Michael, who wore a single dangling silver cross during the 1980s. (Mr. T’s trailing feather hoops also deserve a mention.) But let’s start further back, in Elizabethan England. According to priest William Harrison’s 1557 text Description of England, some men—specifically “lusty courtiers…and gentlemen of courage”—at that time were wearing large earrings made from “gold, stones, or pearl.” (Harrison editorialized that earrings “rather disgrace than adorn their persons.”) Dangling pearl drops were worn by Sir Walter Raleigh, and, later, by King Charles I, whose taste for luxury goods played no small part in the English Civil War and his subsequent execution. Charles, who acquired his rare ovoid pearl earring at the age of fifteen, actually kept the earring on during his own beheading, after which it was removed and sent to his daughter and eventually ended up in the collection of an East Midlands estate.
Political movements often use fashion as a point of affinity or distinction—see the French Revolution’s sans-culottes or the Zoot Suit Riots—and styles can rise and fall as power shifts. So it is maybe unsurprising that plumed Cavalier hats, slashed doublets, and gaudy, dangly earrings went out of fashion for a while after the execution of their highest-profile proponent by Puritans. They were relegated to the proverbial and literal backwater, associated with sailors until the 20th century. (Harry Styles’ single pearl earring was campy not only in the modern sense: the origins of the term “camp” date to the 17th-century French court, where similar earrings were also worn.)
This is a shame, because dangly earrings do not belong to aristocrats and women; they belong to everyone, because they rule. They swish around and punctuate your steps as you walk and make tiny metallic sounds that only you can hear. They’re like the roller skates of ear jewelry: totally without practical use and extremely fun. When you are wearing a dangly earring, it is impossible to not have a good time.