Research Spotlight: The Door-Knocker Earring

These interviews took place between June 4 and June 14, 2017. Part of the introductory text has been excerpted from the soon-to-be-released catalogue for the forthcoming MoMA exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern?

Photo: Amanda Lopez

Among the 111 objects at the core of the Items exhibition, quite a few are examples of jewelry. While some have had an impact on the broader social and cultural landscapes of the 20th and 21st centuries, we have also chosen to feature others whose significance, though not universal, has nonetheless been profound within more contained microcosms.

Enter the door-knocker earring. The name means different things to different wearers. Typically a hoop of gold or silver (circular, or at times square, triangular, even heart-shaped), the door-knocker’s most salient feature is its ample size. When not applied to hoop styles, the term door-knocker has also been used to describe earrings of similar heft that, like the hoop, dangle below the earlobe with a commanding proportional presence.

Door-knockers have deeply rooted cultural significance for women of color, and in recent years have become the centerpiece of a hotly contested debate around cultural appropriation. This past March, three students at Claremont, California’s Pitzer College took to the campus’s free speech wall with the message, “White Girls, take OFF your hoops.” The provocation (deliberately) stirred controversy, questioning individuals’ rights and choices around dress, and framing such choices within larger questions of race, authenticity, and desirability. The message was expounded upon by student Alegria Martinez with an email sent to the entire student body:

[T]he art was created by myself and a few other WOC [women of color] after being tired and annoyed with the reoccuring [sic] theme of white women appropriating styles…that belong to the black and brown folks who created the culture. The culture actually comes from a historical background of oppression and exclusion. The black and brown bodies who typically wear hooped earrings, (and other accessories like winged eyeliner, gold name plate necklaces, etc.) are typically viewed as ghetto, and are not taken seriously by others in their daily lives. Because of this, I see our winged eyeliner, lined lips, and big hoop earrings serving as symbols [and] as an everyday act of resistance, especially here at the Claremont Colleges. Meanwhile we wonder, why should white girls be able to take part in this culture (wearing hoop earrings just being one case of it) and be seen as cute/aesthetic/ethnic. White people have actually exploited the culture and made it into fashion.
Photo: Amanda Lopez. Styling: Tanya Melendez

The line between inspiration and appropriation is a fine one, and is certainly crossed when history and privilege are not acknowledged. Beginning in the late 1980s, door-knockers were popularized in the mainstream by female hip-hop artists and through style-conscious chola subcultures. It is from these sources that their appeal has been translated.

When Patricia Field, costume designer of the American television series Sex And The City (1998–2004), outfitted the show’s trendsetting Carrie Bradshaw character in a pair of nameplate “Carrie” door-knockers in 2001, a fad for the earring spread among the show’s (predominately white, affluent) viewers, transposing the door-knocker’s cultural value into fashion novelty. More recently, pop musicians Nicki Minaj and Lana del Rey each wore door-knockers and other chola-inspired styles in their promotional music videos (in 2013 and 2014, respectively), while Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci was praised by the fashion press for “his consciousness of youth culture,” after presenting his fall 2015 “chola Victorian” collection, which featured interpretations of door-knockers.

When designer Marc Jacobs incorporated door-knocker hoops into his fall 2017 “Respect” collection, inspired by the early days of hip-hop, he was praised in the fashion press for referencing a culture, but not misappropriating it. Jacobs himself explained his use of the door-knocker as “an acknowledgement and gesture of my respect for the polish and consideration applied to fashion from a generation that will forever be the foundation of youth culture street style.”

As designers pay homage to the door-knocker, its cultural cachet grows in tandem with the discomfort of those who feel their culture is being purloined without careful consideration of its history — both stereotyped and celebrated in equal measure.

In our efforts to understand the cultural nuances and meanings of the door-knockers — as well as the ramifications of their appropriation — from those to whom the earring holds deeply personal significance, we discussed these issues with three wearers that have seen the door-knocker evolve on both personal and professional levels.

Ivette Feliciano is a queer multimedia journalist of Puerto Rican descent based in Brooklyn.

Gabriella Khorasanee is the founder and creative director of Mama, a groundbreaking ladies streetwear line popular among West Coast Latina subcultures.

Amanda Lopez is a portrait and lifestyle photographer based in Los Angeles. In the spring of 2017 she co-curated Adornment, a photography exhibition that focused on the jewelry, accessories, and hairstyles of women of color.

How would you define a door-knocker hoop/earring?

Amanda: I define door-knocker earrings as gold or silver hoops in the shape of a door-knocker that could be customized to include a person’s name. [It is] a statement earring that gained popularity during the hip-hop era.

Ivette: I’d define door-knocker hoop earrings as one of many items that symbolize resistance and bear cultural significance for communities of color, specifically immigrant communities rooted in indigenous and African traditions. Among Puerto Ricans who left the island for places like New York and Chicago, where I’m from, gold hoops, nameplate necklaces, gold rings, and other items are often gifts from family members wanting to mark life’s important stages: birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals….

Gabriella: To me, door-knocker earrings are equivalent to what I call “bamboos.” The shape can vary — typically round, oval, flat bottom, or even hearts. I prefer gold, and gold is most popular, but they exist in silver, too. They are 3-D, hollow on the inside, and are much lighter than they appear. The epitome of bamboos or door-knockers for me are the ones the rappers of the ’80s wore, like Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, and Roxanne Shanté. And of course, there’s the famous line in LL Cool J’s “Around the Way Girl” — “I want a girl with extensions in her hair / Bamboo earrings, at least two pair.”

Where, in your opinion, did the door-knocker come from in terms of its use within the Latinx and African American communities?

Amanda: I think the Latino and African American communities of NY were early adopters of this fashion trend. I would say it gained popularity during the birth of the hip-hop movement as a way to stand out and as a way to show affiliation to the culture.

Ivette: Our families couldn’t afford to pass on homes or trust funds or inheritances, but they had these bright, dynamic, and noteworthy gold or silver objects. Sometimes you got a family heirloom. Sometimes you got an item bought at the local mega mall, maybe even on sale. Sometimes it was real gold, sometimes not. In any case, these were tangible items that helped people removed from their birth lands to re-create traditions and community spaces for their children in the face of poverty and anti-immigrant and racial discrimination.

Gabriella: My stylist and I paired bamboo earrings in photoshoots for my clothing line, Mama, as early as 2004. One of the collections (Fall ’08) was inspired by chola style…. I did not want the photos to look “costume-y.” I know large hoops are a very important part of chola style, but I, my stylist, friends, customers all wore bamboo earrings in our day-to-day. To pair them in the shoot was just a natural extension of that. We didn’t want to mimic chola style, but be inspired by it, and wear it our own way. Amanda Lopez shot the campaign, and she’s the one who told me that was the first time she had seen the two paired together.

What does the door-knocker symbolize for you?

Amanda: For me, door-knockers are an adornment piece with a rich history rooted in music and culture. I feel proud when I wear my door-knocker earrings.

Ivette: Door-knocker hoops were beautiful, cool, and hip, but only to be worn in the spaces that were safe enough to do so. Door-knockers were on a long list of items, along with bright red lipstick and long acrylic nails, that should not to be worn in professional settings because they might limit how seriously I’d be taken and the amount of access I’d be given. Even though these items made me feel closer to my culture, family, and friends, I was told wearing them would make white people see me as too “ghetto” or “ethnic.” Those in positions of power would be distracted and might sexualize me and not hear what I had to bring to the table. Today, I’ve come to embrace these items as symbols of resistance, and believe I have a right to be taken seriously no matter what I have on. I should be able to define myself and not be put into a box because of what I’m wearing.

Gabriella: Bamboos symbolize an affiliation with, or nostalgia for, the early days of hip-hop. Growing up in the ’80s, but being too young then to buy my own jewelry, I looked up to the ladies that wore them. When I was finally old enough to purchase my own gold jewelry, one of the first purchases I made was bamboo earrings. They weren’t even “trendy” at the time, more of a throwback, and that’s how I liked it.

What do you think about their appropriation by high-fashion designers, pop stars, and movie/television costume stylists?

Amanda: It think it’s unjust when fashion designers and movie stars are praised for using door-knockers, yet when women of color wear them, they have been labeled as “hood” or promiscuous.

I have a deep respect and admiration for hoop earrings because it’s a piece of jewelry that is gifted to all of the newborn babies in my family. I feel like mainstream society did not have the same appreciation for these types of adornments until fashion designers incorporated them on their runaways and/or celebrities started to wear them despite the fact that door-knockers have been worn in communities of color for decades and have been long admired.

Ivette: When fashion designers appropriate “gaudy” jewelry like door-knocker hoops, redefine these items as “high-fashion trends,” and then sell them, they’re capitalizing on the work communities of color have done to make those items visible, and they’re making money on the backs of those lived experiences. When fashion items treasured by communities of color also cost those individuals jobs, internships, promotions, and other forms of social and economic capital because they were perceived as unintelligent, inarticulate, and unprofessional as a result, it feels hurtful and invalidating. When those very same items are appropriated by white women who have privilege and access because their intelligence and worth is presumed, it is frustrating. I don’t believe fashion should have limits or rules, but I do believe people, especially those with privilege, should inform themselves about the history of the things they wear. When people wear things that are rooted in cultural traditions and acts of resistance by communities of color, they should be thinking about the price that was paid to make those items “acceptable” to a mainstream audience.

Gabriella: It’s annoying and in a way I felt like the specialness was ruined. Before they were trendy, bamboos were hard to find. So if you wore them, you knew the spot to get them. It was like a club in a way. By having bamboos everywhere, worn by everyone, I felt like they lost some of their meaning. There was also a bit of appropriation which I didn’t love. Before they were trendy, bamboos would be looked down on by high fashion as being too “street.” But, once they decided it was “cool,” then it became okay. Guess what? They were cool all along, high fashion just didn’t get it. Thankfully, like all trends, the bamboo trend died, so I can go back to wearing them because I love them, not because they are “trendy.”