Ornamentation is decorating or beautifying objects or human bodies. Architecture is ornamentation on a larger scale; human beings alter their surroundings using artistic methods such as stained glass, textured walls and ceilings, and murals. Throughout history human beings have esthetically improved their surroundings. Ornamentation is present in physical objects such as pottery, textiles, and art. It is believed that the Homo sapiens sapiens were the first to sculpt animal and human figurines from ivory, engrave images on limestone blocks, and create ornamentation from ivory, shell, soapstone, and animal teeth. Tools and weapons have been found that appear to have originated 40,000 years ago, possibly to help construct personal ornaments. Cave art and paintings have been discovered at Lascaux dating back around 17,500 years, believed to be made by the Cro-Magnons. The site Sungir, located in Russia, shows signs of personal ornaments of ivory and schist carved into geometric and animal forms and dating back 28,000 years. Another site in Russia, the site of Kostenski 17 in the Don Valley, dates back 36,000 years and shows signs of ornaments constructed out of fossil coral and belemnites. With the advancement of technologies, both the pottery and textile industries have seen dramatic improvements. Although there have been many instances of extravagant items created from pottery and textiles in the past, new technologies continue to make the process easier and faster than before. Individuals use these artistic techniques to create functional objects, to express a certain characteristic about themselves or their culture, and to leave a footprint of human evolution. These expressions may be made consciously or unconsciously.
Humans adorned themselves from early ages. Human ornamentation involves decorating the body by wearing specific clothing, jewelry, headdresses, body paints, tattoos, body piercings, brandings, scarifications, or cicatrizations. Decorating the body is a means to communicate and express a variety of meanings that are symbolic of the individual or his or her culture. Some theories associated with ornamentation suggest that certain adornment practices, such as tattooing, serve the purpose of closely connecting social and spiritual customs in a population. Certain cultures believe that the use or wearing of specific ornaments will protect them from evil spirits or bad luck. There is also a belief that body ornaments unify groups of people while placing them in certain geographical areas depending on the characteristics of the ornaments.
Different types of jewelry may be worn by people depending on their age or whether they are male or female. Jewelry is found all over the world, in different styles, colors, shapes, and made from diverse components. Many ancient societies created beautiful pieces from stones, shells, gems, rocks, wood, and precious metals. In Hawaii, personal ornamentation had great importance. Leis, worn to fend off evil spirits, were made from nonperishable and perishable objects. The nonperishable objects included stones, feathers, and shells. Perishable leis consisted of flowers, fruit, and leaves. Beaded necklaces are popular among African tribes. Most people in eastern and southern Africa wear some form of beaded jewelry, but in the western part of Africa, beadwork is reserved for members of royalty. The colors of the beads used, shapes, and patterns carry much significance. The type of necklaces worn in these societies can also communicate information about the individual. Women tend to wear their beadwork to illustrate their wealth. Depending on the number and types of necklaces worn, a woman may be seen as wealthy or not. Furthermore, wearing a specific beaded necklace tells other individuals in the society that the woman is nursing.
In India, jewelry plays an important role in ornamentation. Bangles, bracelets, or wristlets are popular among Indian women. It is the variety and number worn that expresses whether a woman is married or betrothed. It is also suggested that a woman wearing wristlets is able to express different emotions nonverbally by the tinkling sound they produce. Armbands and armlets are prevalent among Indian and Egyptian cultures.
Body painting involves decorating parts of the body using natural or artificial paints. In many cultures, body painting is used as a temporary disguise or simply to decorate the body. Henna is a popular source of paint in India and Egypt. Henna is often used to paint parts of a woman’s body for traditional Indian weddings. The Australian Aborigines frequently use body paints during ceremonies and rituals. They decorate the body with patterns for protection, as a mark that the individual is in transition, and to aid in the recollection of dreams.
Headdresses are any objects covering the head partially or completely. They are made of various materials such as cloth, animal skin, or plants. In many societies, past and present, there are figures of authority or of specific importance who wear special headdresses. Warriors and shamans wear special garments to differentiate them from other members of the society and to command respect. In Western society, headdresses may identify figures of authority or of religious importance, such as police officers and priests. Headdresses may also be worn because of geographic location and condition. The Plains Cree wore winter hats made of buffalo and coyote hides in cold weather; however, they also wore a variety of ceremonial headdresses such as eagle feather bonnets and buffalo horn caps. Only those possessing magical powers were allowed to wear these headdresses during pursuit of a vision. Hats worn by the Naga tribes were mainly composed of boars’ tusks, fur, horn, and feathers. These represent qualities such as courage, merit, and other values important to the Naga tribes.
Tattooing involves the piercing of the skin using needles or other sharp objects to create a specific image on the body. Tattooing, as well as cicatrization, is often practiced in order to permanently mark the body as a form of association with a particular society or with characteristics the individual possesses. It is also suggested that indigenous or tribal motives for tattooing involve connection with the Divine, sacrifice, or a form of permanent good fortune and health.
The Maori and the Native Americans have used many painful techniques during puberty rites and rituals expressing manhood. Among the Maori of New Zealand, tattooing—called moko—is widely practiced. Cuts one-eighth of an inch deep are made into the flesh with a mallet and a sharp blade or chisel. This procedure is very painful, but the individual is regarded as strong and brave and is highly respected. In the British Isles, ancient tribes used to tattoo their bodies in order to scare their enemies. The Romans adopted this idea and implemented it in their society by tattooing convicted criminals and slaves; the tattoos represented a low social status. A few early Christians tattooed symbols of the cross onto their bodies, but tattooing was forbidden once Christianity was declared the official religion of Rome. Once they reach puberty, Ba Thonga women are tattooed on the shoulders and stomach to represent fertility and eligibility for marriage. The Japanese introduced the use of colors in tattoos to Europe and America.
Body Piercing and Augmentation
Body piercing and body augmentation are other forms of personal ornamentation. The Marshallese pierce the earlobes with shark teeth to create holes that are gradually enlarged by inserting leaves. The enlarged earlobes may then be used to carry items such as tobacco sticks or clay pipes. Some tribes use lip plates and lip wedges that are inserted into the lip by a precision cut. The lips conform to the shape of the implanted objects as the flesh heals. The Lobi women in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as well as the Kirdi of Cameroon, believe that evil spirits are unable to enter through the mouth if they wear lip plugs. At a young age, children are pierced with a thorn by their mothers. The hole is enlarged by inserting stalks of grass and finally a plug made of clay. Women from Chad and Sudan install lip plates resembling the beaks of the spoonbill and broadbill, which their culture deems sacred.
Scarification is a technique in which cuts and incisions are made into the flesh to leave permanent scars on the body. It is believed that forms of scarification were considered to be marks of civilization. Natives from the Andamans use scarification practices on young males and females to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood. The elder generation believes that by this painful experience, children will grow up to be strong individuals.
The purpose of cicatrization is to cut wounds in the flesh that will create a decorative pattern of scar tissue. It is similar to scarification, but the scars are more severe and protruding. Cicatrization is thought to be a process in which individuals physically mark their passage through various stages of their lives. This procedure has been performed by tribes in Africa. In addition, female mummies have been found with decorative scar tissue along the stomach area, possibly for protection and to promote fertility.
Ornamentation in the World Today
Today there are numerous forms of ornamentation used all over the world as a means of personal expression. Globalization has allowed the acculturation of ornamentation to occur. Although certain aspects of an individual’s life may be revealed by the type of clothing or jewelry he or she wears, most types of ornamentation are available to a vast number of individuals. Some people adorn themselves with expensive jewelry and designer clothes to express their accumulated material wealth, while others attempt to portray themselves as wealthy by purchasing inexpensive replicas of the same materials. The symbols of wealth, beauty, and power are always in transition, and there are often revivals of adorning techniques that were popular in the past. Tattoos, for example, were originally used to decorate and communicate different messages. They evolved from a technique of ornamentation that was practiced first among native tribes and later by criminals and the rougher individuals in society. Today, tattoos are accepted as a means to express an individual’s uniqueness and creativity.
Modern society carries historical knowledge in its ornamentation. Traces of family history and culture are found in the way individuals decorate their houses, offices, and themselves. Using items that have been passed down from generation to generation, as well as new items, individuals define themselves in the ways they decorate themselves and their surroundings.
- Eicher, J., Johnson, K., & Torntore, S. J. (2003). Fashion foundations: Early writings on fashion and dress. New York: Burg.