I can’t quite remember if the phrase goes “Beauty is pain,” or “Beauty knows no pain.” I’ve heard it both ways. Nonetheless, the point is the same: discomfort is an integral part of being stylish. Anyone who’s ever gotten their eyebrows waxed knows this.
Throughout history, all across the world, people have come up with fashion innovations that gave new meaning to this phrase. Discomfort, disease and injury were merely relative as you strutted your stuff in the latest digs. You might have been the belle of the ball, but you also might have gotten sick or died– the fun was in the uncertainty!
Read on for five of the deadliest fashion trends in history. Should you find yourself wondering, “what were they thinking,” remember, the number one rule of fashion: there are no rules!
Corsets: Breathtakingly Beautiful
Corsets have existed in many iterations throughout history: even men wore them in ancient Crete! However, the most recognizable corset is that of the Victorian era, those that were responsible for a shapely, delicate silhouette.
To properly rock a corset, you had to embrace risk. Corsets were easy enough to put on: simply place in front of your chest, wrap around your body, lace the ribbon through the corset to the bottom, and voila!
Once you had the corset on, the possibilities were endless and you could tighten to your heart’s content!
Yank those laces until you couldn’t breathe and fainted over the side of a boat (ala Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean). Squeeze until your organs were pushed up into your upper torso and you couldn’t digest food properly. What the hell? Go for broke–or dead, as it were.
You could wear your corset until it was so constricting, the ends rubbed together to form two small sabers that punctured your heart. This form of “death-by-corset” was the case for Mary Halliday of Niagara Falls, whose daring corset wearing even landed her a spot in The Gray Lady herself– The New York Times. Mary may not have lived to enjoy her fifteen minutes of fashion fame (say that three times fast), but the point of fashion is to stand out and be noticed, and she certainly succeeded in that regard.
Chopine: Elevate Your Style… Higher… No, No, Higher!
Sorry to disappoint all of the Monsters out there, but Lady Gaga actually didn’t invent heel-less platform heels.
Chopines, women’s platform shoes, were popular between the 15th and 17th centuries in Europe and heel height was often an indicator of status– the higher your heel, the more important you were.
After all, darling, only the most socially elite were willing to break their ankles walking on 20 inch heels. With servants to cater to their every need and more than enough money to afford medical care, how else were the rich supposed to spice up their lives?
Crinoline: Girls on Fire
If you were planning to attend a ball or a fancy gathering, you were probably ready to make a fashion statement.
What better way to make sure you were the standout guest at any soiree than by donning a crinoline petticoat, standing near an open flame (any candle would do) and letting nature take its course?
Crinoline’s huge circumference made it great for adding volume to dresses and knocking things over–including oil lamps and candles–or inadvertently leaning into a fireplace or stove. Skirts were also often cleaned with highly flammable petroleum. So in addition to the fullness the petticoat gave your derriere, you were sure to be the talk of the town after you went up in blazes.
Here’s hoping you lived to tell about it.
Foot Binding: Keeping Fashionistas on Their Toes
Seriously, who needs full use of their feet? Having your trotters repeatedly broken and mangled to the point that they kind of resembled ginger root is so much better.
If you managed to survive the excruciating binding process without dying of an infection first, you would be able to perform delicate dances on the tips of your toes and have more promising marriage prospects since small feet were preferred over huge, completely healthy ones.
So, wins all around, basically.
Who cares if you couldn’t get anywhere quickly and were subjected to crippling health problems later in life? The important thing here is that you were ascribing to the social norms and beauty standards of the time period.
Muslin: Pneumonia Never Looked Better
In late 18th century France, clothing weighing more than 3.5 kilograms (around 7.7 pounds) was reserved for nobility, as a result of France’s Sumptuary Laws, which basically said luxuries were only for the rich and socially affluent.
As such, common women were relegated to light, flimsy muslin, and had to improvise to make the light, plain fabric stylish and becoming. In this case, improvising meant ditching undergarments and immersing your body in water so the muslin fabric clung to you and accentuated your figure.
Creative? Yes. Sexy? Definitely. Dangerous? Absolutely.
This fashion was hugely popular, even during the winter. And damp clothing mixed with frigid weather and prevalent cases of pneumonia gave way to the notion that muslin was directly responsible for widespread illnesses, including an influenza epidemic known simply as “muslin disease.” Pulmonary phthisis, better known as tuberculosis or consumption, was another ailment that came en vogue during this time, supposedly as a result of the muslin craze, according to The White Plague: Tuberculosis, Man, and Society, by Jean and René Jules Dubos.
Fortunately, frail bodies and sickly pale facades were also fashionable back then (“sun-tan” powder, or bronzer, and otherwise looking healthy, wouldn’t become trendy until the 20th century) so you would have fit right in as you coughed, shivered and wasted away.
So, You’re Saying Historical Fashion Was “Drop-Dead Gorgeous?” *Cue Rimshot and Laugh Track*
Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head once declared: “You can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” We believe her wholeheartedly and so did the people who dared to don these torturous styles. They got everything they dressed for (status, sexy figures, desirably small feet, cinched waistlines) and a little bit of extra stuff that they didn’t (debilitating sickness, broken bones, burns, death).
Frankly, I think it’s time for a risky fashion revival. Skinny jeans so tight you need to be cut out of them and boots that look like old gym socks (thanks, Kanye) are child’s play compared to the weapons, I mean, “outfits” of yesteryear.