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It’s a look that we’ve been giving one another — and trying to avoid — for centuries. The Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, and more made beautiful protective jewelry in their attempts to ward it off. The tradition has survived in some of the unlikeliest places, including designs from fall 2016’s most sought-after collections. Alexander McQueen, Givenchy, and Chanel all showed glittering eye-shaped jewelry, breathing new life into this ancient trend.
Call it the season of the witch — there’s no question that mystical jewelry has been on the rise for a while now. Still, the appearance of evil eyes and hamsa hands (more on these later) marks a new level of acceptance of the occult in fashion. While most people might know their astrological sign or own a crystal, wearing evil eye jewelry is somehow spookier. It’s easy enough to read your horoscope in a magazine, but choosing to wear a charm to protect yourself from evil spirits is more intentional, not to mention more visible. Maybe it’s the natural progression of the witchy trend: We’re ready to up the mysterious ante and do something that seems a little more dangerous.
It may feel transgressive now, but it’s crucial to remember that evil eyes aren’t new, and they definitely aren’t uncommon. Even the most basic eye print hearkens back to a long history of sorcery. Nearly every major culture believed in the "gaze of malice" at some point in their history, and the signature blue and white amulets are an ever-present reminder of the tradition’s stronghold in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and some regions of India. Here in the West, we’re just now catching on — and capitalizing on — an already-established tradition.
These protective talismans, known as nazar, are de rigeur in Eastern markets. Their simple shape is what you may have recognized in Alexander McQueen’s latest hairpins and brooches, or in the onslaught of new jewelry designs dominating luxury retailers both online and in store. In their original form, nazar come in the form of small eye-shaped beads that can be strung into bracelets or necklaces, or larger pendants that can be hung in a highly-trafficked area to ward off bad vibes.
Other times, the design is painted onto a place or object for the same effect — it’s not so much the physical representation, but the presence of the symbol itself that activates the magical effects. In fashion, the approach is much the same. Many of the ubiquitous evil eye rings, necklaces, and bracelets currently riding the mystical trend are variations on a theme; what’s missing, however, is the context. According to Draja Mickaharic’s Spiritual Cleansing, in some Eastern cultures, if you admire something in another person’s home, they will offer it to you to avoid getting the evil eye. That’s right: Imagine giving someone your favorite possession just because you don’t want them to curse you unintentionally. That’s how deep this runs.
If you’re going to talk about the evil eye, you’ve also got to talk about hands. The hamsa hand may be the most popular — and ancient — protective symbol against the evil eye. An open hand with an eye in the palm, this design has origins in the Babylonian Empire as an emblem of its goddess, Inanna. Others cite Egypt as its source, naming it the Hand of the All-Goddess, Isis. In Greece, the symbolism was handed down to Aphrodite. In the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions, it’s known as the Hand of Mary or the Hand of Fatima. Cultures the world over agreed on one thing: This amulet embodied female power.
Other folk remedies for the evil eye also doubled as feminine representations. Necklaces of eye-shaped cowrie shells did symbolic double-duty in India as representations of the vulva and evil eye-repelling talismans. Yes, when you’re wearing one of these charms, on some level, you’re wearing something much more provocative! Essentially, the life-giving properties of the female anatomy are believed to neutralize the evil eye’s destructive capabilities. It’s a very metaphysical idea, but the fact remains that femininity is the antidote to this mysterious ailment.
Still, women’s relationship to these charms has a troubled history, as do many accounts of women who practice magic and mysticism. Even though people who fear the evil eye invoke feminine strength for protection, women are believed to be more susceptible to the curse — both giving it and receiving it — in part due to the patriarchal structures in which these beliefs surfaced. Among poor urban Egyptian women, it’s common for mothers to keep their children away from the jealous eyes of women they believe to be infertile. In modern Italy and Greece, where men and women are treated more equally, so too is their ability to cast and fall victim to the "gaze of malice."
In a way, wearing evil eye jewelry can be a form of empowerment. Whether we realize it or not, adorning ourselves with these symbols is a rebellion against those who would cast an unwanted glance our way at a party, in the office, or in our online spaces. At its heart, fear of the evil eye has a lot to do with consent, or the lack thereof. When you wear an evil eye charm, you lay down a boundary between you and those who would do you harm. It’s an appealing concept, especially when some in our society — even presidential candidates — still struggle to accept the seriousness of consent.
The Eye of Horus image, a centerpiece of Givenchy’s fall 2016 look, takes the protective power of the evil eye a step further. Add this to your arsenal of Illuminati conspiracies: This Egyptian design was one of the original "All-Seeing Eyes," traveling across the sky every day as falcon-headed sun god Horus. Also known as a Wadjet, the symbol took on many of the qualities of its eponymous goddess, including royal authority. The Eye of Horus was a common funerary amulet, believed to give the passage to the afterlife; later, sailors painted it on their ships to protect them on long journeys. Strangely enough, Horus’s mother was Isis, to whom the hamsa hand was once attributed.
Even if our attraction to these images is purely aesthetic, it’s hard to deny that the rich origin story behind them could carry some sort of subconscious weight. Evil eyes aren’t the only way in which we ascribe magical significance to jewelry, hoping it will avert ill will or give us some kind of supernatural power. Some elite athletes carry lucky charms, and wedding rings are viewed almost as talismans, able to cement a committed relationship. Thanks to social media, we’re digitally overexposed and learning to deal with new vulnerabilities, so an age-old charm seems a natural defense mechanism.
Indeed, we all covet what we can’t have; it’s the very principle on which fashion is built. Perhaps that’s why, consciously or not, designers are deploying protective amulets against the evil eye’s gaze in their designs for fall. In an age when we are constantly being watched, we’re subjected to this sort of astral voyeurism more than ever. So we desire any sort of prophylaxis; though we may not understand it, we’re willing to partake in it.
Of course, it helps when the amulet is a thing of beauty — but high fashion evil eye jewelry poses an interesting conundrum. Indeed, when the object of protection from envy is itself enviable, does it have the same effect? Maybe. It could be nothing more than a curious objet d’art, like any other trend that comes and goes with the seasons. Or perhaps we’re all ensnared by the evil eye of our haters in a cycle that surfaces again and again throughout history. Either way, we can’t stop looking.