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

10 Fashion and Beauty Items That Are Older Than You Think

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
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Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
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That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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