How Bamboo Earrings Became Iconic

Long before Carrie Bradshaw adorned herself with them, they were the ultimate fly girl accessory

Credit: Paul Bergen/Getty Images

InIn 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 haven’t received the credit they deserve for doing so).

SSalt-N-Pepa were my style icons when I was nine. I asked Mom to get me a pair of bamboo earrings after seeing their “Shake Your Thang” music video. She said they were too grown for me. But by the time LL Cool J dropped “Around the Way Girl” in 1990, I was old enough for my own pair.

“I want a girl with extensions in her hair, bamboo earrings, at least two pair.” It was this line that made the song a sho’ nuff summer anthem.

When LL rapped about how beautiful our excessive styles were — he wanted a girl with fake hair and not one but two pairs of bamboo earrings — we felt seen.

From a young age, Black girls are sent messages that we aren’t enough, but we also get a lot of messages about how we are too much, our lives caught between these contradictions. Most White folks in Fort Wayne didn’t understand anything about Black culture. Black girls in particular, with our elaborate hair-grooming processes and gawdy accessories, were foreign to White folks. We knew that they deemed us loud and excessive and uncouth. Ghetto. They weren’t interested in our experiences, just in highlighting what they found exotic. “How did you get your hair to do that?” “Is that your real hair?” “Why do you change your hairstyle so much?” and “You don’t wash your hair every day?” That was what you’d get from your handful of White classmates, if they weren’t ignoring you.

So when LL rapped about how beautiful our excessive styles were — he wanted a girl with fake hair and not one but two pairs of bamboo earrings — we felt seen and valued and understood. LL strolled through New York, camcorder in hand, capturing on video Black and Brown women wearing “around the way” looks: big-ass earrings, dookie rope chains, weave ponytails, stacked haircuts, belly tops, and bras under airbrushed “jumpers” (what we called overalls) with one strap down. It felt like a Black man loved us. And many of us were aching to feel that love — from absentee fathers and brothers as much as from romantic partners.

If only he had said “Tanisha” when he did his famous roll call: Lisa, Angela, Pamela, Renee — the names of the girls he tells “I love you” — I would’ve adored the song even more. I was not among the chosen. But this song was still a love anthem for me, one of the rare ones that didn’t just sexualize us, but celebrated us.

II can’t pinpoint the exact moment when I first realized it, but by the time I was in high school, it was a regular conversation among my friends and me: “White girls want to steal everything from us!” It became even more glaring in college once I learned the theory of cultural appropriation in one of my Africana studies courses. After that, I would look around my lily-white campus, seeing White girls mouthing the lyrics to rap songs, tying bandanas around their stringy hair, wearing big hoop earrings and dark liner around their lips, and pushing up on brothas in the club, all while ignoring the Black girls, as if we were completely invisible.

On my first visit to New York City in 2002, soon after I graduated, I saw bamboo earrings on every corner down in Greenwich Village. I had to ask my friend, “What’s up with the White girls wearing door knockers?”

“Girl, everybody tryna look like Carrie,” she said, as she gave me a cynical Brooklyn girl side- eye.

Sex and the City costume designer Patricia Field had, early on, dressed the fictional Carrie Bradshaw, newspaper columnist and fashionista, in a 14 karat gold “Carrie” nameplate necklace that became part of Carrie’s funny downtown girl look. And just a year before my pilgrimage to the land of bamboo earrings, Field custom-made a pair of Carrie nameplate bamboo earrings.

Just like that, nameplates and bamboo earrings were en vogue in the world of haute couture. The classic Black and Latinx New York style was now the property of rich White girls around the world. Field took credit for putting nameplate jewelry on the map. Soon, other designers, from Balenciaga to Céline, would start selling them in high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, and online retailers were popping up, too.

Field took from cis and trans Black girl and nonbinary femme cultures when she decided to dress Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie in these ’80s hip hop classics. Field has admitted that she saw young street kids wearing what White people were calling the “ghetto gold” look outside her storefront in the early ’90s, and that prompted her to give Carrie her nameplate necklace as a symbol of her single, carefree days as a young girl coming of age in Lower Manhattan. Field’s style choices helped elevate Sarah Jessica Parker to fashion icon status, a symbol of everything fashion-forward, edgy, and hip.

So here were White women now flocking to designer boutiques and high-end department stores to get the looks that Black girls like my friends and me had been dogged out for wearing. On us, to outsiders, the earrings were tasteless, cheap, sleazy even. But once a White woman like Patricia Field said it was fashion, the ghetto gold look was now a vintage something to emulate.

But, when we traveled uptown to Harlem, a wave of nostalgia washed over me: I was in the land of bamboo earrings. Seeing that Black girl flair on every corner gave me all the feels and reminded me of all the ways we invented “fly girl fly” style!

Reprinted with permission from Dressed in Dreams © 2019 Tanisha C. Ford. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Illustrations by Veronica Miller Jamison.

Tanisha C. Ford is a writer, cultural critic and professor of Africana Studies & History at the University of Delaware.