Looks That Could Kill: 16 Of The Most Dangerous Fashion Trends in History

Voting Rules

Vote up the most lethal trends of the past; vote down the fashion faux pas with a quick recovery time.

Today, fashion and beauty are a booming industry that shows no signs of slowing down. Since ancient times, humanity has valued beauty and has sought out ways to find it through any means necessary. Perhaps this is why it's been said that “beauty is pain.” 

The items on this list, however, take that saying to a whole new level as people who fell victim to these trends faced deformities, rotting flesh, madness, and even death in the name of fashion. As you read, ask yourself, “What would I do for beauty?”

  • Arsenic 'Scheele's' Green
    Photo: P. Lackerbauer / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 4.0
    437 VOTES

    Arsenic 'Scheele's' Green

    What It Was: In 1775, Swedish chemist Carl Scheele discovered that combining sodium arsenite and copper sulphate produced a bright green pigment. After Scheele’s discovery, the new pigment, which he called "Scheele's Green," became an instant hit. It was used in paintings, toys, wallpaper, dresses, and fabrics among many other products. This particular mixture was used until the late-19th century when it was eventually replaced by cobalt green.

    Why It Was Dangerous: The combination of chemicals used to produce the green color was a deadly cocktail. Close prolonged contact with the substance led to arsenic poisoning which began with skin irritation, nausea, headaches, colic, and skin lesions that blistered and oozed. As the poisoning progressed, people’s bodies were destroyed from the outside in. One account of a young woman dying of arsenic poisoning describes her foaming at the mouth, nose, and eyes and vomiting a vile green liquid. Her fingernails and the whites of her eyes had turned green. She had previously worked as an adornment painter, using Scheele green to perfect flowers for wealthy women.

    437 votes
  • 2
    379 VOTES

    The Mercury Felt Hat

    What It Was: During the 17th century, French hat makers discovered that using mercury softened fur pelts making them easily pliable. The practice spread from France to other Western European countries quickly as the results of using mercury were very successful. The practice was banned in the 1940s after "issues" with the hat makers due to mercury poisoning.

    Why It Was Dangerous: Mercury affects the gastrointestinal and nervous systems. Exposure to heat while making the felt hats released mercury vapor resulting in workers developing “Mad Hatter” disease. Those exposed experienced physiological symptoms that included headaches, weakness, and tremors. Behavioral changes included irritability, shyness, and mental instability. Workers quite literally went crazy as a consequence of their hat-making work. 

    379 votes
  • Foot Binding
    Photo: For. Arfo / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 4.0
    455 VOTES

    Foot Binding

    What It Was: Foot binding, AKA lotus feet, was popular among women in China beginning in the 8th century. The ritual involved breaking the bones of the toes and curling the toes under the foot. The feet would then be wrapped and forced to heal in this position, deforming them for life. The practice was believed to make women more desirable as they became objects in their husband’s homes unable to walk or do any work. The small steps they were able to take were deemed dainty and feminine. Some cultures in rural communities still practice this today. 

    Why It Was Dangerous: The women who healed well dealt with severe mobility issues and lifelong pain. For some, the breaking and forceful rolling of the toes under the feet caused severe circulation issues resulting in a cut-off blood supply to the toes. The toes would then slowly blacken and rot, eventually falling off. At this point, gangrene easily set in and would begin to eat away at the rest of the foot. As the infection worked its way into the bloodstream, many women died of sepsis stemming from their open wounds.

    455 votes
  • Venetian Ceruse
    Photo: Nicholas Hilliard / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    423 VOTES

    Venetian Ceruse

    What It Was: Venetian ceruse, AKA Spirits of Saturn, was a mixture of water, vinegar, and powdered white lead that was used to achieve a pale look on the face of the wearer. While using lead in makeup dates back to the ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian times, Venetian ceruse in particular was made popular by European aristocracy (most notably Queen Elizabeth of England) and was used from the 16th to 19th century. The thick white makeup was thought to send the message that the wearer was both able to afford the substance and be wealthy enough to not have to labor outdoors. 

    Why It Was Dangerous: Continuous use of the toxic makeup could lead to lead poisoning. Some of the effects on the wearer included: abdominal pain, nausea, hair loss, headache, anemia, and high blood pressure. On a more extreme end, wearers could experience muscle paralysis, mental impairment, infertility, convulsions, damage to internal organs, and eventually death as a combination of all the side effects. The skin of the face itself would sometimes blister, peel, bleed, ooze, and scar. Wearers would often attempt to cover their disfigured faces with even more Venetian ceruse, making the problem worse. 

    423 votes
  • 5
    404 VOTES

    Glow-In-The-Dark Hair And Makeup

    What It Was: The first half of the 1900s saw everything from clocks to lotions to lipsticks and face powder containing radium. Using radium in makeup became popular during the early 1900s in both the US and Western Europe. Products with radium were believed to literally give wearers a glowing complexion as the products sometimes glowed in the dark. By the 1940s, radium fever had mostly lost its popularity but some ceramics and glass continued to contain the ingredient up until the 1970s. 

    Why It Was Dangerous: Radium is a radioactive chemical that can cause severe damage to the human body. For women who ingested the products with radium, the consequences were often devastating. Lesions, anemia, sterility, lost teeth, rotted jaw bones, facial tumors, and eventual death were all side effects that people with radiation poisoning experienced. If ingested, the chemical would rot the insides of the individual. 

    404 votes
  • 6
    364 VOTES

    Belladonna Eye Drops

    What They Were: In Renaissance Italy, belladonna ("beautiful woman" in English) was used to make pupils bigger, giving a woman the look of "doe eyes" that was considered attractive at the time. The trend quickly spread to other countries in Western Europe.

    Why They Were Dangerous: Belladonna in all its forms is highly toxic. On the less harmful end, belladonna drops would cause blurred vision, temporary blindness, increased heart rate, and eye irritation. On the other end, women could experience mental disturbances, convulsions, permanent blindness, heart damage, and eventual death. The plant shuts down some of the body’s necessary life functions such as sweating, breathing, and heart rate. Despite its very severe effects on the human body, in very small precise quantities, belladonna is still used today for various medicinal needs.

    364 votes