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Baubles, bangles and beads: our fascination with adornment

From feathers and flowers to powder and paint, people from all time periods, societies and civilisations have decorated themselves. But what do these adornments tell us about being human?

Distinguished Professor Stephen Davies from the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts says adornment is one of the few social behaviours that is close to being genuinely universal.

“Adornments send vitally important signals about what we care about, our affiliations and backgrounds and our social status and values. Their use unifies a diverse set of human practices,” he says.

His new book on the subject, Adornment: What self-decoration tells us about who we are, examines adornment practices in African, Australasian and North and South American indigenous cultures, as well as the Māori moko and the practice of tattooing in Asia and the Pacific.

Drawing on a range of fields including aesthetics, evolutionary history, archaeology and psychology, he has looked for “big patterns across a big scale”, and says the extraordinary thing is how far back evidence of human adornment goes, as well as its fantastic variation.

"Jewellery’s use is ancient, for example. Perforated seashells, presumably worn as necklaces or bracelets, have been found in graves that are more than 130,000 years old. Gold and silver were widely sought and traded across much of the ancient world, along with precious materials like jade, amber, coral, pearl and obsidian. And by 3,400 years ago, there was a huge commercial market in glass beads, which over the following millennia were exported over much of the world, including by the million to Africa.”

The application of makeup and body paint also has a long history.

“Our ancestors collected bright red shades of ochre from more than 100,000 years ago. Meanwhile, trade in scents, lotions, and cosmetics across ancient Egypt and the Middle East was continued by the Greeks and Romans. The bathhouses of all these civilisations included cosmetic facilities, and a similar interest in scents and makeup was also apparent in ancient India and Asia.”

Similarly, instruments for tattooing date back 20,000 years, and the mummified remains of Egyptian priestesses from about 4,000 years ago bear tattoos.

Professor Davies is especially interested in pre-history and evidence of the earliest types of adornment. “There is a wonderful picture in the book of two adolescent Homo sapiens who lived about 27,000 years ago excavated from a burial site with thousands of mammoth ivory beads surrounding them. Just the time and effort involved in creating all those beads is extraordinary.”

He says a primary function of adornment across all cultures has always been attracting a mate.

"Since reproduction plays an important role in most people’s lives, decorations often send signals about our circumstances as possible mates, the idea being that each sex caters to the preferences of the other in the adornments it favours.”

According to evolutionary psychologists, men look for fertility in women and this correlates with youthfulness and signs of health like facial symmetry and bright eyes. Correspondingly, women might use makeup to remove blemishes, alter their facial architecture, and highlight their eyes.

However, women are said to be looking for the benefits for their children that go with status or wealth in their male partner.

“So men’s decorations can be expected to mark achievements or indicate class or wealth. These crude, gender-based generalisations can be applied with caution and are supported by what happens in many societies and periods.”

To the extent that wealth and reputation can be lost or gained, men’s decorations tend to be impermanent, whereas those marking puberty, marriage, and childbirth in women can afford to be permanent, says Professor Davies.

“In many tribal and traditional societies, men’s decorations frequently take the form of body-paint or insignia, while women’s bodies are more often tattooed or scarred.”

He says each sex is also inclined to distrust the reliability of the signals sent by the other’s adornments.

“This is particularly apparent in men’s ambivalence toward women’s decorations throughout history. Men are drawn to women who use makeup, but are highly critical of what is regarded as its overuse.”

An edict issued in England during the sixteenth-century observed that “any woman who through the use of false hair, Spanish hair pads, make-up, false hips, steel busks, panniers, high-heeled shoes or other devices, leads a subject of her majesty into marriage, shall be punished with the penalties of witchcraft”.

Adornments also outlast the initial attraction of a mate. “Even if some decorative practices were once concerned primarily with attracting the opposite sex, they were long ago co-opted to broader social practises of self-presentation and social identity. It isn’t as if people give up their styles of ornamentation after mates have been found or children birthed.”

And beauty is culturally relative. “Widespread indigenous adornment practices include tattooing, piercings, scarification, ear and lip plugs, neck coils, and labrets (a form of body piercing), and while some of these also occur in Westernised societies, they have often been viewed negatively.”

Professor Davies says tattoos and scars, especially on the face, for example, are sometimes repellent to people with cultural traditions deriving from religions in which people are said to be made in God’s image.

“But some other groups regard people as unfinished or uncivilised until their bodies have been marked. Many African peoples, for example, consider beauty to be an effect of scarification, not innate.”

In exceptional cases decoration goes far beyond aesthetics.

“Indeed, it transfigures the bearer’s identity, like a jewel-encrusted sword with a gold blade which can no longer function as a fighting weapon, though it might now become a ceremonial item. In a similar fashion the body, rather than being highlighted through its adornments, is demoted to the status of a mere canvas that supports them.”

One thing is certain, he says. “Adornment is the signature of being human."

Adornment: What self-decoration tells us about who we are is available from Bloomsbury from 7 January 2020 as a paperback online, EPUB ebook and a PDF ebook.


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