CLOSE
Master of the Blue Jeans, Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie
Master of the Blue Jeans, Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie

10 Fashion and Beauty Items That Are Older Than You Think

Master of the Blue Jeans, Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie
Master of the Blue Jeans, Beggar Boy with a Piece of Pie

1. Blue jeans

Maybe you think blue jeans started in the 1950s, with too-cool-for-school rebels like James Dean. Or you may have heard that they began in the 1850s, when Levi Strauss developed durable pants for miners following the discovery of gold in California. Mr. Strauss did help clothe the miner-forty-niners and make Levi’s synonymous with jeans, but the hardwearing trousers go back much further. Around 2004, a Parisian art dealer and a Viennese curator independently chanced upon the work of an anonymous-17th century northern Italian painter. He (or she?) depicted working class people wearing an indigo blue cloth, which was often ripped, revealing white threads. In The Barber Shop, a shaft of light penetrates the darkness to reveal the classic blue-jean indigo of the customer’s pant leg. Curator Gerlinde Gruber dubbed the artist “Master of the Blue Jeans.”

2. Bikini

Getty Images

When French mechanical engineer Louis Réard introduced a revealing two-piece women’s swimsuit on July 5, 1946, he called it the “bikini”—after the atomic bomb that rocked the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific a few days earlier in peacetime nuclear tests initiated by the U.S. But navel-baring two-piece athletic wear for women is much older. Villa Romana del Casale is a Roman villa in central Sicily built early in the 4th century AD. The palatial complex holds a rich trove of mosaics, including a remarkable one on the floor of a room called “Chamber of the Ten Maidens,” or informally, “the bikini girls.” Young women show off their athletic skills, running, lifting weights, throwing discuses and playing ball. In their brief bandeau tops and bikini bottoms, they appear ready to hit the beach in Malibu.

3. High heels

Despite the pain and restricted gait high-heeled shoes inflict on their wearers, many women crave them for the long-legged look they impart. Early elevated shoes served a much less glamorous purpose. In medieval Europe both men and women would slip “pattens,” high wooden or metal clogs, over their thin-soled shoes when they ventured outdoors to protect themselves from mud and excrement. According to legend, women began wearing high heels after Catherine de Medici arrived in France in 1533 to marry Henry, the future king. The petite fourteen-year-old Florentine supposedly wore specially made high heels to increase her stature and status.

But Elizabeth Semmelhack of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto tells a different story. She traces the high heel back to 16th century Persia, where Shah Abbas I commanded the world’s largest cavalry. The horsemen’s spiky heels helped them grip the stirrups, just as cowboys’ raised heels do today. Persian style swept through the courts of Western Europe. High-heeled shoes gave aristocratic men the look of virile horsemen. In the 1630s, fashionable women adopted the masculine style with short hair, epaulettes, pipes and high heels, Semmelhack told the BBC.

4. Lipstick

The first known lipstick was discovered in the Sumerian region of Ur, in what is now southern Iraq. It is believed to date from 3000 BC. Ancient Egyptians, including fashionable men, painted their lips. The most popular color was bluish black, followed by orange and reddish magenta. Women of ancient Greece reddened their lips too, with respectable wives showing more restraint than prostitutes. And in Rome, both sexes colored their lips.

5. Eyeliner

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you’ve seen the bust of Nefertiti (ca. 1370 BC – ca. 1330 BC) or a movie depiction of Cleopatra (69 BC –30 BC), you know the ancient Egyptians wore eyeliner. And if you’ve checked out some Egyptian tomb paintings, you know that men and children also painted dark, dramatic outlines around their eyes. The inky cosmetic was kohl, a sulfide of antimony or lead.

6. Eye shadow

Getty Images

What about the vivid blue-green eye shadow Elizabeth Taylor sported as Cleopatra? Next to hers, the eyelid shadings of movie Cleopatras Claudette Colbert (1934) and Angelina Jolie (2014) look downright tasteful. La Liz may have gotten it right: Ancient Egyptians used sparkling eye shadow made from ground malachite and beetle shells.

7. Nail polish

Punk rockers weren’t the first to flaunt scary nail colors. According to one source, a solid gold manicure set containing nail coloring made of green and black kohl and dating from 3200 BC was uncovered in the royal tombs of Ur. Several sources claim, without further elaboration, that the Chinese invented nail polish about 3000 BC. The ancient Egyptians stained their nails with orange henna, a more appealing polish than the Romans’ mixture of sheep fat and blood.

8. Hair coloring

Thousands of years before platinum blonde bombshells exploded onto the movie screens of the 1930s, both men and women colored their hair to cover gray. Plant products such as chamomile, indigo, logwood, henna, and walnut hull extract, as well as fruits and flowers, made up the first dyes. The ancient Mesopotamians and Persians dyed their long hair. Greek gods were envisioned as blond and ancient Greeks lightened their hair with a mixture of potash water and yellow flowers. The hair lightener used by the Romans often made their hair fall out, so they made wigs from the fair hair of slaves brought from Gaul. Around the same time, Saxons were dyeing their hair blue with the extract from the leaves of a plant called woad.

9. Skin care

Facial masks are nothing new. The ancient Egyptians used egg-white masks and smoothed and tightened their complexions with cucumber juice. The Romans prepared a pungent night cream, the ingredients of which included sweat extracted from sheep’s wool. Women in pre-Columbian Latin America moisturized their faces with avocado.

10. Tattoos

Customizing one’s body with inked words and pictures may be a global trend now, but tattooing is far from new. Egyptian figurines dating from about 5,500 to 6,000 years ago show women with tattooed thighs. But until the 1990s the earliest examples of tattoos found on actual bodies were on several mummified women about 4,000 years old. In 1991, the frozen body known as the Iceman was discovered on the Italian-Austrian border. Carbon dating showed the tattooed body to be about 5,200 years old.

So, if you think you’re fashion-forward, look over your shoulder. The ancient Egyptians may have had your look first.

Additional Sources: “Mystery of Denim’s Origins Solved by Art,” Discovery.com;  Kremer, “Why Did Men Stop Wearing High Heels?,” BBC News Magazine; Lineberry, “Tattoos: The Ancient and Myterious History,” Smithsonian.com; Nails Magazine; Lipstick: A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic; various articles in Daily Life through History; Chemical Composition of Everyday Products; “Villa Romana del Casale,” Wikipedia.

arrow
History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
arrow
History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios