Throughout the years of history, fashion and style have had some odd and peculiar moments. The things we do for beauty aren’t just inconvenient, weird, and trendy, they are sometimes downright dangerous.
Death by style?
It’s happened …
- In the 17th century, King Louis XIII of France began to go bald. Being rather inventive and a trend-setter (he was, after all, the king), he led the fashion march towards ornate, gigantic, powdered wigs. They became so large that some ladies and gentlemen had to sleep sitting up so as not to disturb the tower upon their head. For 17th-century noblemen and women (not known for their hygiene), these wigs were a nightmare of infestations and disease. Lice were common … as were trapped mice!
Louis XIV and His Family, unknown artist, via Wikimedia Commons.
- Nowadays, women flock to unhealthy tanning beds, or the more cancer-free sunless tanners. But that’s a recent phenomenon: until about 100 years ago, the paler and more lily-white a lady’s skin was, the more desirable. This led to lead-based paints the women used on their faces, causing side-effects like migraines, high blood pressure, miscarriage, confusion, nausea, rotting teeth, and even death.
- The rumors of “rib removal” have been circling around since Victorian times. After all, how did those women get such tiny waists, even with their abominable corsets? Legend has it, it was from removing their floating ribs—the ones that protect the back organs but not the front—and these rumors are still floating around today, especially in the world of celebrities.
- Stiff, high collars for men in the 16th century seem innocent enough. (Their lady friends found necks irresistible, it seems.) But as benign as they might appear, they were cinched so tightly that many a man asphyxiated slowly. That this allegedly happened mostly at the pub may have played a factor.
- We can’t help it: We girls love our mascara and eyelash serums, even false lashes, just to make our baby blues appear larger. But back-in-the-day (up until this century), women used belladonna. Yes, deadly nightshade. It dilated their pupils, making them look big and beautiful. If blindness, coma, and death came calling, at least they left a pretty corpse, I guess.
- If lead paint makes you squeamish, you can try arsenic for your skin. “Dr. Mackenzie’s Improved Harmless Arsenic Complexion Wafers will produce the most lovely complexion that the imagination could desire, clear, fresh, free from blotch, blemish, coarseness, redness, freckles, or pimples,” states a box of one of the most popular beauty pills in the 19th century. Side effects included vomiting, internal bleeding, hair loss, and (you guessed it) death.
- Arsenic wasn’t just used for the skin, it was also used to color dresses and hats green. Until poor Matilda Scheurer, a 19-year-old artificial-flower maker, died of “accidental” poisoning in 1861, it was common practice. The formerly healthy young woman worked in central London, along with 100 other employees. She “fluffed” artificial leaves, dusting them with an attractive green powder that she inhaled with every breath and ate off her hands at each meal. We won’t subject you to the details, but her death was not pleasant and involved nearly every part of her body turning green, including her fingernails.
- Celluloid combs were a common, and deadly, accessory for men and women (men used them for their beards). These combs could combust and explode in the heat. In Pittsburgh, an entire comb factory exploded.
- You’ve heard the expression “mad as a hatter,” right? It’s been around since before Alice in Wonderland’s author, Lewis Carroll, made it popular. But there is a reason for the description: mercury was put in men’s hats in the 18th and 19th centuries, and as we know now, that’s a big no-no. The slow seeping of poison led to “mad hatter disease”: tremors, irritability, and oddly enough, pathological shyness. Remember how eccentric the hatter was at that tea party? It was hardly his fault he was so edgy and paranoid.
- Hoop and crinoline skirts weren’t just cumbersome and awkward (imagine trying to get through a narrow doorway or sneak by an annoying party guest); they could also kill you. It was not remotely unusual for the highly combustible hoops and flowing fabric to catch fire from the candles and oil lamps of the day. Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poor wife, Fanny, met her end this way.
A Splendid Spread by George Cruikshank, from The Comic Almanack, 1850, via Wikimedia Commons.
So while skinny jeans, underwire bras, and high heels may be uncomfortable, count your blessings. Beauty may be pain, but we’ll stick to our flannel shirts and broken-in jeans, thank you.