7 Strange Historical Fashion Trends

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Technicolored hair, body piercings, armadillo shoes—you’d think the 21st century had a lock on out-there fashion trends. But baffling sartorial crazes are hardly a modern development. From voluminous wigs to personal air fresheners to a town full of stilt-walkers, you’ll find the history books are filled with eyebrow-raising fashions meant to show off one’s social status. Here are seven trends that will make you grateful for jeggings (well, almost).

1. Scented Cones

British Museum

Tomb paintings from Ancient Egypt—such as the above, from the Tomb of Nebamun, c. 1350 BCE—depict noblewomen with cones atop their heads. In the days before deodorant, these cones acted as their own personal air fresheners. Made of scented wax or grease, the cones were often worn to banquets or indoor ceremonial gatherings, where the hot temperatures would melt the cones to release a sweet smell.

However, lack of archeological evidence (an intact cone has not yet been found) leads some Egyptologists to claim that the cones seen in the drawings are not meant to be taken literally, but are rather symbols that indicate the wearers’ wigs—also en vogue—were perfumed.

2. Powdered Wigs 

Hulton Archive / Handout

It’s no coincidence that the rise of wig-making and -wearing corresponded with the late-16th century syphilis outbreak.

In the Middle Ages, long hair denoted wealth and high social status for both men and women—only the rich could go about their days unhindered by their flowing locks. So, the more follicly-challenged members of the upper and middle classes (predominantly those with the nasty venereal disease) took to wearing horse, goat, or human hair wigs, known as perukes. They were coated with scented lavender or orange powder to mask the inevitable gnarly smells symptomatic of syphilis.

But the trend turned from necessity to the height of fashion when France’s King Louis XIV (above) began wearing wigs. Balding at the age of 17—again, likely from syphilis—Louis hired 48 wigmakers to keep his bare scalp well covered. When his cousin, England’s Charles II, started wearing wigs to hide his salt-and-pepper mop, the fad became a sensation. Powdered wigs were the look du jour until the late 18th century, when the French Revolution and a British tax on hair powder caused citizens to embrace their natural state.

3. Chopines

Wikipedia Commons / Museo Correr dei Veneziani

Popular among Venetians in the 16th and 17th centuries, chopines were a precursor to today’s platform sandals. As with powdered wigs, chopines were originally invented for practical purposes: Their thick, raised soles were meant to help women traverse Venice’s muddy or irregularly paved streets. However, as with the wigs, they came to be associated with wealth and status. The taller the shoe, the more important the person.

The trend was taken to dangerous levels as the platforms reached dizzying heights. The shoes got to be so high—a pair displayed at the Museo Correr dei Veneziani measures in at 20 inches—the wearer required an attendant to help her maintain her balance. (Lady Gaga, take note.)

4. A City of Stilt-Walkers

Hulton Archive / Stringer

The chopine not high enough for you? In the 19th century, the people of Landes, France, incorporated stilts into their daily ensembles. Tchangues, or “big legs,” were created by Landese shepherds to help navigate the brushy, swampy terrain. High atop the stilts, the shepherds could wade through pools of water and quickly scale the countryside without bothering to look for roads, which were few and far between.

An 1891 article in Scientific American, quoted here, described the stilts:

The stilts are pieces of wood about five feet in length, provided with a shoulder and strap to support the foot. The upper part of the wood is flattened and rests against the leg, where it is held by a strong strap. The lower part, that which rests upon the earth, is enlarged and is sometimes strengthened with a sheep's bone. The Landese shepherd is provided with a staff which he uses for numerous purposes, such as a point of support for getting on to the stilts and as a crook for directing his flocks.

But the tchangues weren’t reserved for the shepherds—all the villagers, men, women, and children alike, were skilled stilt-walkers.

5. Bombasting

Bombasting, or padding one’s clothing with extra stuffing, became popular during the Elizabethan era in Britain. At the time, both men and women were known to bombast their sleeves to create the gigantic “leg-of-mutton” poofs we now associate with the time period. Men would also bombast their doublets to create the appearance of a filled-out belly. A man’s Elizabethan doublet could include as much as four to six pounds of bombast, made from rags, cotton, horsehair, or bran.

While bombasting in the Elizabethan sense fell out of fashion in the mid-17th century, padding one’s perceived deficiencies never truly went out of style. Men of the colonial and regency periods in America and Britain were known to pad their calves to make them appear more muscular. And the leg-of-mutton sleeves made a resurgence at the end of the 19th century (just ask Anne Shirley about her love of puffed sleeves). Today, people are more likely to pad their bosoms or derrieres than their legs or arms.

6. Hobble Skirts

Thompson / Stringer / Getty Images

Not unlike high heels, hobble skirts were seemingly designed to slow women down. The name for this tight-fitting skirt, which became popular at the turn of the 20th century, does come from the term for tying a horse’s feet together to keep it from running off, after all.

French fashion designer Paul Poiret is credited with creating the first hobble skirt in 1910. His new narrow silhouette hugged the legs close and cinched in at the ankles. Of his decision to forgo a corset and petticoats in favor of a sleeker design, Poiret is said to have boasted, “Yes, I freed the bust … but I shackled the legs.”

7. The Symington Side Lacer

During the Roaring '20s, fashion trends began to favor a rectangular, boyish figure over an hourglass form. To achieve this straighter silhouette, women enlisted the help of some new-fangled undergarments.

The Symington Side Lacer, invented by corset-makers R. and W.H. Symington, was a type of bra specially designed to flatten, rather than support, a woman’s breasts. The wearer would slip the garment over her head and then pull the straps and side laces tight to smooth out any curves.

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October 30, 2014 - 8:00am
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