I am not a big follower of fashion, but I have noticed that while the human body has not changed over time, our method of covering it changes constantly, and 99% of those changes have nothing to do with practicality. It’s all in the name of fashion.
Taken to extremes, fashion can be uncomfortable, ridiculous, and even deadly. So I thought it would be fun to explore what I consider to be the Ten Worst Fashion Ideas of All Time.
10) Plucked eyelashes. Although the ancient Egyptians and Romans used cosmetics to enhance eyes and eyelashes, by the Middle Ages, women in Europe were having their eyebrows and even eyelashes plucked out to give more emphasis to their foreheads. At the time, the Church was more powerful than any secular government, and it decreed that hair of any kind was considered too erotic to be shown in public. So women were supposed to cover their heads and presumably they made a virtue of necessity and declared a long forehead to be the epitome of fashion. But eyelashes serve an important function keeping debris out of the eyes, so not only would the process be painful, the resulting fashion would be pretty uncomfortable, too, no matter how pious it appeared. And it should be noted that the Roman Plinius the Elder wrote believed that “eyelashes fell out from excessive sex and so it was especially important for women to keep their eyelashes long to prove their chastity” So instead of looking chaste, those plucked women could have been considered real sluts.
9) Calf pads. We’re all familiar with padded brasseries, which allow women to enlarge the apparent size of their mammary glands. And there are countless jokes about padding used to enhance male anatomy. But for a time, men decided they needed padding in an area they could have developed themselves had they only bothered to engage in some exercise. In the days of breeches that buckled at the knees, some men had special padding to make their legs look more shapely. Really?
8) The Houppeland – This enormous outer robe from the 1300s and 1400s was a distinct change from previous close fitting garments that showed off the figure and allowed free movement. It was extremely heavy and had long flowing sleeves that would have been impossible to wear while doing any work whatsoever. This allowed the rich to show off their idleness, and because the female version of this garment was so much more ponderous than the version worn by males, it helped perpetuate the idea that women were, as Terry Jones put it in his book Medieval Lives, “reduced to rather helpless ornaments.” And I can’t help but wonder how many times somebody set their own sleeves on fire.
7) Patches – I’m not sure why a big dark ugly mole in the middle of someone’s face is referred to as a “beauty” mark, but my guess is that it was started by the courtiers of an insecure king with a big ugly mole on his face. In any case, from the 1600s to the end of the 1800s, fake “beauty marks” called were all the rage. They could be made of black velvet, silk or leather and cut in shapes like stars. As time went on, they became even more elaborate. Fashionable men and women carried patches in elaborately decorated ceramic patch boxes, along with some sort of adhesive to reattach them with they inevitably fell off. There are stories circulating that the wearers could send messages to others according to where they placed the patch on their face (for example, placing it on the left cheek could be a signal that the wearer was engaged, or that he or she favored a political party), but I think this is probably as fictitious as the so-called “language of the fan.” Patches could cover up blemishes or small pox scars, but were they really an improvement?
6) Stretching. I’m not talking about stretching hamstrings, but stretching body parts like earlobes way out of proportion. It’s an ancient practice — an ice mummy from 3300 BC was found to have stretched earlobes–and it’s been found in cultures around the world ever since, most recently in North America. In addition to earlobes, men and women have stretched their lips and nasal septums, all in the name of fashion. But what do we know about fashion? It changes. And if you’ve stretched your earlobes to the size of tractor tires, they’re not going to shrink back to normal when you’re ready to move on to the next fad.
5) Long-toed Shoes. We’ve all seen the pictures of court jesters wearing goofy shoes with long pointy toes, and it’s great for comic effect. But in the 1400s, that style of shoes was not meant to be humorous at all but a sign of great wealth. Eventually cobblers started making the toes so long that they had to use a chain tied around the wearer’s knee to hold them up. The long toes were often stuffed with hay or moss to help them keep their shape. Supposedly there were even laws passed to regulate the length of the tips of the shoes. The common people were limited to six inches, while nobility and royalty were allowed a full two feet. Like anyone’s going to pass a law telling a king how long his shoes can be…In any case, it is worth noting that this fashion was much more extreme for men than for women.
4) Bustles, farthingales, panniers and rump rolls. The question “does this make my butt look big?” takes on a new meaning when the wearer actually hopes the answer will be “yes.” At various times from the late 15th through the end of the 19th century, fashion dictated that women enhance either their rear ends or their hips to a ridiculous degree. The fashion first began with simple rolls of padding at the waist and expanded to cage-like hoop devices the might prop a gown out two feet or more on either side or in the back. In the mid 1700s, the side hoops called panniers became so unwieldy that woman had to turn sideways to walk through a doorway. In the late 1800s, bustles in the back protruded so severely that women could not sit unless the bustles were constructed so that they could fold up in back. And whoever decided that this was a good look for any woman?
3) Gravity Defying Pants. They don’t actually defy gravity, and that’s a big reason this men’s fashion from the late 20th and early 21st Centuries is near the top of my list. Not only do men look ridiculous when their pants look like they’re about to fall down at any moment, they look even more ridiculous when the sensation of their pants being about to fall causes them to stop and pull them up ten to fifteen seconds. Fashion students of the future are going to be laughing over this one for centuries to come.
2) The Corset. Yes, a small waistline is desirable. But even back in the days before x-rays showed that cinching women’s waists too tight could squash the ribcage and displace internal organs, people referred to corsets as “the deadly artifice” leading to lung disease. Men wore them for a brief period in the late 1700s and early 1800s, but they quit before the corsets got seriously painful in the Victorian era. Women are still wearing them, but in a much less restrictive form.
1) Lead Cosmetics. For hundreds of years, upper class Europeans sought to have the palest skin possible in order the demonstrate that they did not have to work in the sun like the common people. One way to achieve the pale complexion was to smear white lead paste on the skin, perhaps accented with red (also lead-based) makeup on the cheeks. Some people liked to use a preparation based on arsenic instead of lead. Continued use of this makeup could cause muscle paralysis, skin lesions, hair loss and in extreme cases, insanity or death. And this crazy fad was not limited to Europe. New forensic evidence shows that poisoning from the use of lead based makeup may have helped bring about the end of the Shogun class in Japan. Maybe they didn’t have the benefit of modern science, but people had to know this stuff wasn’t doing their skin any good. But once your makeup starts causing your skin to look bad, I guess the only thing to do is cover the problems with more makeup.
The modern equivalent would be like smearing nuclear waste on your skin to give you a healthy glow.
So those are my top ten. I should say that some ideas that I personally consider horrible, such as wigs and high heels, were not included in this list because their enduring popularity leads me to believe they appeal to enough somebodies to make them at least a halfway decent idea. In other words, I have been outvoted by history. However, I will note that although men were the first ones to don wigs and begin increasing the height of shoe heels, they quit doing it hundreds of years ago, whilst women are still expected (by men) to wear the painful devices. And there have been many painful debilitating procedures inflicted (especially on women) over the years such as foot binding, but I don’t consider those fashion, so while they were definitely bad ideas, they didn’t make the list either.
At least writers get to work in their pajamas…
A shorter version of this article first appeared on the Romance Bandits website. Thanks to Dr. Katherine Angell at SUNY-Oneonta for the wonderful picture of the men in all their 14th Century glory. Her website is full of wonderful fashion history information: http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/angellkg/INDEX.HTML