Crazy fashion trends from history teach contemporary clothes horses a few things. One, people will go to ridiculous lengths to prove their station in society. They’ll nearly break their necks by teetering on towering platform shoes, hobble themselves with skirts, and bind themselves up in an organ-shifting corset, all in the name of style. And two, exaggeration is key. From hugely padded sleeves to large embroidered codpieces, true devotes of trends believed that bigger was better.
Weird fashion trends from history were frequently dangerous as well. Vivid dyes could be made with toxic arsenic, while voluminous crinolines could easily catch on fire. Even if the clothing wasn't fatal, a lot of these crazy fashion trends from history seriously impaired a person’s ability to live a normal life. People who wore bliauts couldn’t really use their arms. Men who donned crakowes found walking a bit problematic. And extra wide panniers kept women from fitting through narrow doors.
Whether they're deadly or just plain nuts, you can be thankful these fashion trends are in the past.
Bottle-green dresses were all the rage in the Victorian era, and they had price tags to match. To achieve this lovely shade of green, the fabric was dyed using large amounts of arsenic. Some women suffered nausea, impaired vision, and skin reactions to the dye. But the dresses were only worn on special occasions, limiting exposure to the arsenic in the fabric. The garment makers were the real sufferers - many died to bring this trend to the fashionable set.
Lotus shoes were worn by Chinese girls with bound feet. For centuries, families repeatedly broke and folded the feet of their young daughters to create the tiny feet that epitomized femininity. The foot was bound with long ribbons to prevent growth. If the toes withered and fell off, even better. The process usually took between two to three years, and the girl’s feet were bound for the rest of her life.
Women with bound feet wore Lotus shoes, cone or sheath-shaped footwear that resembled a lotus bud. The shoes were made of silk or cotton and were usually ornate, embroidered with flowers, animals, and other traditional patterns.
There were many attempts to ban foot binding throughout history. It was officially outlawed in 1912, though the practice was still carried out in secret in some areas of China for years after.
15th and 16th century men sought to accentuate their packages with codpieces. They were often made of padded cloth or embroidered fabric, though metal codpieces were also worn. Held in place with buttons, strings, or ties, the codpiece was designed to draw praise and raise a man’s profile. Even the name was knowingly bawdy - "cod" was slang for scrotum.
But French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wasn’t having it, calling out the hypocrisy of the device. In the 1580s, he deemed the codpiece "an empty and useless model of a member that we cannot even decently mention by name, which however we show off and parade in public."
Codpieces eventually fell out of fashion as doublet styles changed and breeches became more billowing.
Panniers (from the French word "panier," meaning "basket") were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. The boxed petticoat expanded the width of skirts and dresses, and stood out on either side of the waistline. Panniers varied in size and were made of whalebone, wood, metal, and sometimes reeds. Extremely large panniers were worn mostly on special occasions and reflected the wearer’s social status. Servants wore smaller hoops. Two noblewomen, however, couldn’t walk through an entrance at the same time or sit on a couch together. The device was also uncomfortable, limiting movement and activity.
The expansive pannier sparked ridicule. A satirical article in The Gentleman’s Magazine, written in 1750, portrayed women as being sick of the burden of the style. "We pass along, as it were, balancing between two scales. Every person we meet, every post we pass, and every corner we turn, incumber [sic] our way, and obstruct our progress. We fit in a chair hid up to our very ears on either side, like a swan with her head between her lifted wings. The whole side of a coach is hardly capacious enough for one of us," a passage read.
Also known as the poulaine, this super long shoe reigned supreme with men across Europe in the late 14th century. The shoes were named after Krákow, Poland because they were introduced to England by Polish nobles. Once the shoes were seen at court, they became all the rage - even though the shoes were six to twenty-four inches long. But they were a quick indicator of social status: the longer the shoe, the higher the wearer's station.
Chains were sometimes strung from the toe of the crakow to the knee to allow the wearer to walk. Sometimes the toes were stuffed with material for the same reason. They were considered ridiculous, vain, and dangerous by many conservatives and church leaders, who called them "devil's fingers."
True, Poiret's design liberated women from heavy petticoats and constricting corsets. But as he said, "Yes, I freed the bust. But I shackled the legs."
The exaggerated body stuffing known as bombast was popular with both women and men during the 16th century. Cotton, wool, or even sawdust was used to add volume to areas of clothing, particularly the sleeves. Men sometimes filled their doublets to give the illusion of a fuller belly, or padded their calves to look more muscular.
During the Roaring '20s, the hourglass shape gave way to the boyish flapper figure and underwear got an overhaul. The goal of every undergarment was to flatten the breasts and torso, so that flapper dresses could hang straight down without any curvaceous interruptions.
Corset-makers R. & W.H. Symington invented a garment, the Symington Side Lacer, that would flatten the breasts. The wearer would slip the garment over her head and pull the straps and side laces tight to smooth out curves. Other manufacturers designed similar devices. The Miracle Reducing Rubber Brassiere was "scientifically designed without bones or lacings," while the Bramley Corsele combined the brassiere and corset into one piece that easily layered under dresses.