In the late 1980s and early ’90s, every Black and Brown girl and femme wanted a pair of bamboo earrings. They were the consummate earrings of city girls pioneering hip hop fashion.
The earrings ain’t really made of bamboo, of course. Some folk paid top dollar for the real gold earrings, the kind that were so heavy they made your earlobes sag. But there was a range in quality, believe me! And most folks where I’m from in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were buying the cheap ones, made of low-quality, gold-plated metal. The even cheaper ones would be plastic with metallic gold paint that starts to flake off a few days after you buy them.
Bamboos are like their namesake in that they are hollow and have distinct joints. Those joints are what make a pair of bamboo earrings stand out from any other oversized hoop. There’s a bunch of other popular styles of the huge earrings that we descriptively call “door knockers”: there’s shrimps, dolphins (that look like two dolphins kissing), triangles, trapezoids, hearts, and so forth. In any shape, rocking a pair of door knockers gives you a distinct African or Caribbean flair. Wearing them made us feel both stylish and connected to our roots.
No one really knows who originated bamboo earrings and other styles of door knockers. The reality is that the first ones were probably produced super cheap somewhere in Asia and distributed through the Asian-American flea market system, kiosks, and open-air markets. And girls from the hood were drawn to their flashy style among all the other low-price-point goods. When hip-hop stars like MC Lyte, Roxanne Shanté, and Salt-N-Pepa started rocking these everyday Black girl styles in their music videos, they gave the earrings cultural currency.
Upscale versions existed in the ’80s, but designers weren’t really trying to stake a claim, and the style remained mostly popular in our Black and Brown communities. They were also big with drag queens and trans women and nonbinary femme dancers of New York’s underground ballroom scene, whose style genius injected a lot of the drama and performativity and gritty queer glam into hip-hop style (and they still…