Viktoria Szanto brings us another installment of her ‘History of Fashion’ series, an exploration of the history and meaning of tattoos and piercings. Check out her last post, an analysis of suffragette fashion, here


Are body modifications acceptable? Are they abnormal? Are they fashionable? I was hesitant to write about the issue of tattoos and piercings under the title ’history of fashion’ because they are not commonly discussed in this context, despite the fact that they have been around for thousands of years. Fashion, or anything in society for that matter, is pushed forward by two, seemingly conflicting principles: individuality and globalization. It can mean something ground-breaking, as most people in the fashion industry – the most famous at least – are visionaries who introduce new, creative ideas and are able to express themselves in an individualistic way. Or it can mean the exact opposite: fashion equals mainstream, the norm. I can’t help but refer to the very famous monologue of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, where she explains how the cerulean blue colour filtered down from the gowns of Oscar de la Renta through hundreds of fashion houses to the charity shop, where Andy – who cares nothing about fashion – perfectly and ignorantly bought it. High fashion thus became the norm.



Now, tattoos and piercings might fit under the first definition, as they can be very singular and personal (it depends on the execution and the idea of course), but hardly under the second. In some circles they are normal, but especially amongst members of older generations, body modifications are still – to put it gently – signs of a deviant nature. To complicate matters more, I also have to add that, as punk is coming back, high fashion has started embracing tattoos and statement earrings, pierced ears and noses more and more. For years now, they have consistently appeared on the runway (most recently the pierced eyebrows in Rodarte’s spring collection for 2015). So are body modifications becoming normal? What is normal anyways? You see, that’s why I’m somewhat perplexed.

Putting ink and metal under our skin is not that outrageous however, if we think about how old and persistent the idea of changing our bodies is. Diets, workouts, makeup, clothes, hair, jewellery, tattoos and piercings all serve one purpose: costumizing the body we were born into without our say, changing it into something we feel more comfortable in.  Though maybe not solely for this reason, getting tattooed and pierced has been ordinary practice for longer than you would think.



Unlike other art forms, tattoos and piercings disappear with the wearer, so we can only make intelligent guesses on the reputation of body modifications in ancient cultures. The oldest known man tattooed is Ötzi, the ice man, whose body – estimated to be 5300 years old – was discovered almost perfectly preserved in ice. Lines and crosses were found on his body; however, his tattoos were almost certainly more therapeutic than decorational. Interestingly, the areas tattooed on Ötzi perfectly correspond with acupressure points that were previously believed to have been discovered by Asian civilizations thousands of years after Ötzi’s lifetime. Tattoos found on the mummies of Egyptian priestesses and royal concubines were long considered to be the oldest examples, dating back to 2000 BC. Marks tattooed on their stomachs and thighs were to protect them against pregnancy. Ancient Romans and Greeks also had tattoos. According to Herodotus, amongst Thracians tattoos were a sign of nobility. In Rome, on the other hand, tattoos were used to identify and mark slaves. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Christianity condemned body modifications; they were only found amongst the members of barbarian tribes – maybe that’s part of the reason why today they are commonly regarded as primitive. Piercings could also be found in ancient cultures, where they not only functioned as decoration, but also expressed the social status of the wearer. Asian, African and Australian tribes even today wear various piercings as part of their culture and tradition.

Tattoos and piercings were brought to Europe by sailors and explorers in the 17th century. In South-America and the islands of the Pacific tattoos mostly depicted magical symbols that protected the wearer against harm. That’s also where the name comes from: James Cook, when in Tahiti heard the locals call it tatau, meaning to dot, punch.  In Europe it shortly became fashionable amongst members of the higher circles to tattoo small signs on the body. In the court of Louis XVI, women pierced their nipples and intimate areas to appear more elegant and wealthy – not the best way to let people know if you ask me. In 1891 Samuel O’Reilly came up with the first tattoo machine based on Thomas Edisons’s electric pen, but in the early 20th century body modifications became illegal. Tattoo artists founded secret organizations and worked in outlying parts of cities, tattooed people travelled with circuses and were seen as monsters. From the 1950s onwards the risk of a hepatitis infection also reduced the popularity of tattoos and piercings.



Just as clothing – once a means of keeping warm and protecting the body – has become a way of expressing oneself, defying or fitting into a norm, today body modifications serve a similar purpose. They are no longer regarded (or they shouldn’t be anyways) as terminal corruption of the body, and they don’t have symbolic or healing powers attributed to them. They are instead a way of externalizing the inner self. They are becoming more accepted in the workplace and thus are no longer associated with criminal activity. They are, in fact, becoming fashionable.



Viktoria Szanto