Everyone likes to think that they shape their own style entirely on their own. One glance at the number of bearded men in plaid shirts strutting about should really make us question that, however. Nineties grunge, eighties perms and mullets, seventies… everything. Fashions age about as well as boy bands. Even those who go out of their way to avoid being fashionable are being shaped by the trends around them. But maybe those who don’t play the style game are the smart ones.
Anyone who can bear to look at pictures from their youth (the “blunder years”) knows the dangers of being a slave to fashion. Fortunately for us, that usually means shocking hair dyes or patchy peach-fuzz beards. Not everyone has been so lucky. Human nature never changes and you can bet that yesterday’s teens and trendies were just as susceptible to peer pressure as they are today.
History is littered with trends that caught on in a big way, despite their tendency to kill the fashionistas that fell for them. In order to get the hot new look, people have willingly put themselves at risk of burning to death, among other horrific modes of death. It’s not just written history that reveals the lengths humans have gone to for that killer look, archaeologists are turning up evidence that as long as humans have been human they have done stupid things to look great.
Here are fifteen ways to peacock your look, if you’re willing to end up dead as a dodo.
Today, tanning beds carry cancer warnings and we have to limit our use of them, even though tans are thought of as a clear sign of health. For the Elizabethans, it was deathly pale skin that was a sign of perfect wealth. Only poor people toiled outside long enough to get tanned. To show they could afford to stay indoors all day, ladies slathered on white paste. A thick enough layer also hid smallpox scars. Unfortunately the makeup used contained lead and long enough exposure ruined the skin requiring more and more to be applied. The lead caused facial tremors, paralysis, and baldness. Maria, Duchess of Coventry, died aged 27 from side effects of this romantically named Venetian Ceruse.
Today, you can’t carry Brazil nuts into sensitive areas because they are too radioactive. But when radium, a potently radioactive element, was discovered, people went looking for ways to use it. One of them was in makeup. From the 1910s to 1930s various companies came up with new and exciting ways to sell radioactive products to women. From face creams and soaps to mud baths and chin-straps there was always some way to soak yourself in "vitalising" rays. There is no way to know just how many cancers this fad for a glowing good look caused. Greater awareness of the dangers of radiation led to the slow demise of the radioactive makeup market.
Platform shoes have always been a statement, but they were once considered a necessity. City streets were more than ankle deep in mud, horse manure, and much worse. To avoid trailing their expensive dresses through this mire, Venetian prostitutes adopted Chopines – wooden platform boots – to lift them above the muck. Chopines had already been worn by upper class ladies for another reason. The taller a lady was, the more fabric, and wealth, she could show off in her dress. Soon Chopines rose to absurd heights, up to half a meter, and they became as dangerous to walk in as stilts. To put them on required the help of servants. Falling from that height into filth? There’s a reason they went out of fashion.
The trend for slender bodies has always made people go to extremes. Diets, purges and, for the truly desperate, corsets can get people into their desired shape. While women were the main users of corsets, to fit into figure hugging dresses, men have also had recourse to organ squeezing devices. That is not a figure of speech. Tight corsets, sometimes made of iron, physically pushed their organs out of the way to cinch the waist in. Later models of corset used whale bone stays to hold their shape – making them bad for whales as well as the user. Breathing heavily could snap a rib and the stays of the corset could puncture the skin causing deadly infections.
Trips to the dentist can be daunting today with all the modern painkillers and other tools at their disposal. That’s what makes the worldwide and cross-cultural fashion for filing teeth so amazing. From ancient America to modern Africa people have felt the need to take tools to their teeth. Sometimes specific teeth were pulled out for ceremonial reasons. Sometimes it was "merely" a reshaping of the tooth. Vikings sometimes had lines filed into their front teeth. Tooth sharpening, filing the teeth into fang-like points, is the ultimate tooth modification. The problem is that teeth have evolved their shapes for a reason. Changing the shapes and chipping the enamel can leave the body open to infection.
Flashy white teeth are an American addiction. No one wants anything less than a glittering grill when they smile. For ancient humans, it was relatively easy to achieve because, without sugar added to their diet, teeth generally lasted a lifetime. Elizabeth I of England was among those who found out the perils of sugar - her teeth rotted and went black. To mimic her, some courtiers dyed their teeth. To show how painless tooth removal could be, one lord had one of his own pulled in the Queen’s presence. When people realised just how dangerous bad teeth could be, the fashion for aristocratically black teeth came to a sudden end. In Japan, a tradition for blackening teeth arose called Ohaguro. This involves the application of layers of black lacquer. Bizarrely though this process is, it may actually help to protect the teeth from damage.
As far back as 2000 years ago, Mayan dentists were giving their patients dazzling grins. Instead of bleaching, they offered a mineralogical cure. They drilled small holes into the tooth and inserted gemstones. In one case, the inlays were found in teeth belonging to a five-year-old child. Using an obsidian drill, they bored into the enamel. It took expert knowledge to know when to stop to avoid breaking into the dental pulp. Do that and infection is a real risk. Nowadays, there are other ways to achieve this look and many sites on the web will be happy to sell you tooth jewellery.
Sometimes, tragedies occur when people cannot afford haute couture and opt for something just a little cheaper. Victorians wanted flannel nightgowns and pyjamas but didn’t want to pay for them. Flannelette, made from vegetable fibres rather than wool, seemed the ideal solution. The only problem was that it acted exactly like tinder and burned rapidly if it even brushed a flame. A flame such as those used to light the house at night when people would be wearing flannelette night clothes. Attempts were made to make flannelette less dangerous, but none were truly effective. Many children burned to death before the flannelette fashion was extinguished.
For such a deadly plant, Belladonna has a remarkably lovely name. It is Italian for “Beautiful Lady.” The association between the two began when it was found that eye drops made from Belladonna would enlarge the pupil. Quite how this effect was discovered is not recorded. The wide pupils were thought to mimic natural attraction and make women more alluring. Less attractive were the side effects of distorted vision, inability to focus, and heart disturbances. Some claimed the drops could make users blind. While they should definitely not be used cosmetically, they are closely related to the medicines used by doctors to aid in the examination of the eye.
When Mrs Hart O. Berg became the first female airplane passenger in history, she faced a problem. The Wright brothers’ plane was entirely open to the air and the voluminous skirts she was wearing would billow up in a most unladylike way. To spare her modesty she tied a rope around the bottom of her skirt. This accident of aviation caught on and the hobble skirt was born – so called because it hobbled the women who wore it so they could only take tiny mincing steps. This was a bit of a (hobbled) step backwards for women’s liberation, as it restricted what women could physically do. One woman who attempted to climb over a farm gate in a hobble skirt fell and broke an ankle so badly that she died from septic shock.
Humans crave to stand out. Colourful clothing in the past was incredibly hard to achieve. As soon as a new colour came on the market people would jump to use it. In 1775 Carl Scheele invented a vibrant new green pigment that was superior in almost every way to old green dyes. The only drawback was that it was synthesised with arsenic. Arsenic toxicity was poorly understood and so Scheele Green ended up in wallpaper, stamps, paints, confectionary, children’s toys, and dresses. Scheele green is not very stable and releases its arsenic over time. Arsenic poisoning is cumulative and mimics cancer. Once the deadly effects of the green dresses were understood, women at dances wearing any shade of green suddenly found themselves lacking partners.
Humans are born without all the bones in their skull fused to allow for brain development. This softness is seen by most people as a reason to protect children’s heads. Some people saw it as an opportunity for social advancement or as ritually significant. By fastening a baby’s head into cruel looking device, you could get the skull to distort into the desired shape. In Inca society the upper classes seemed to find a tall skull particularly alluring. But the practice is not limited to any one culture or class and can be seen in skeletons around the world. It is also still used today. When babies sleep on their back all the time they can develop flat heads. Special pressure bands can get the skull back to a more socially acceptable form.
The 18th century was a literal highpoint for wigs and hair design. In the French court, hairstyles grew to magnificent heights. To the ladies own real hair, coiffeurs piled on horse hair, human hair, feathers, oiled pomades, and flowing ribbons until they tottered up to four-feet high. These extravagances we so elaborate that women would sleep with special neck supports to keep them in shape. They also picked up various species of vermin living in their unwashed hair. Worse than the itching and the smell was the risk of their accidentally passing near a candle. One touch on the flame and the whole confection would go up in flames, killing both lice and lady.
The greatest loss of life in a single building fire can be traced almost entirely to the fashion for crinolines. Crinolines were huge hooped skirts made from steel and wood and fabric that became fashionable in the 1850s. At their largest, the crinolines could have a circumference of six yards. This vast mass of fabric was unwieldy and prone to straying into open fireplaces. This would lead to many individual tragedies. There were also cases of them being caught in high winds and sweeping women to their deaths. Newspaper reports at the time worried that the skirts would knock children into harms way. But it is the fire at the Church of the Company in Chile that showed the true fatal potential of the crinoline. When a fire broke out in the packed church, the exits became blocked with walls of human bodies made stuck by the crinoline hoops. Around 2500 people died.
How far are you willing to go for stylish feet? Chances are no further than a pedicure. For countless millions of Chinese women to reach the ideal of "lotus feet" they had their toes and bones broken. Once the feet were sufficiently pliable (shattered), they were bent over and tightly bound. From the 10th century to the mid-20th, women underwent this practice with the aim of having feet no more than four inches long. The process was obviously dangerous. Many women lost toes to infection and restricted blood flow, but that was all the better, as their feet were that much smaller. Some lost their lives. Surviving women with bound feet describe the pain of the ordeal lasting years. The tiny and unstable steps were considered attractive enough to make it all worthwhile.