Dominatrix bodystockings, pastel bucket hats, prints of soup cans and other recent fashion trends may seem a bit “out there” but fashion statements that are designed to shock are nothing new. Over the centuries there have been many fashions that seem strange to us today but were created due to the social or cultural norms of that era. Others however were always looked at a bit askance by non-trend-setters.
Fashions are a gauge of trendiness just like the latest TV star, online casinos, or video games are. Sometimes the goal of the fashion statement was just that – to make a statement. Royalty, members of high society and the wealthy were always ready to jump out of the envelope if it would make them appear to be a trend setter. There are plenty of other fashions that became popular throughout the centuries though no one knows why since they were uncomfortable, inconvenient and just plain ugly.
It’s hard to know why certain clothing norms emerged. Was it a quirk of someone’s imagination? Were there psychological or social reasons behind the style? Was the style created to suit the needs of one person and then it spread? It’s hard to know the whys of history’s fashions but we can review what our ancestors wore and whisper a heartfelt “thank you” that we live in an era when comfort and attractiveness dominate the fashion world.
Some of history’s most unusual fashions:
Trousers weren’t widely worn by women until the 1970s but in 1851 a temperance activist, Elizabeth Smith Miller, donned an early version of pants for women. The bloomer suit consisted of a short dress/vest with loose trousers gathered at the ankles substituting for the traditional floor-length skirt that was common at the time. The bloomers outraged many who protested that it was, in fact, men’s clothing. A few women of the era dared to wear bloomers but they were often harassed on the streets and the trend quickly died out.
Hobble skirts were introduced in France and were in fashion throughout Europe and the United States between 1908 and 1914. As the name indicates, wearing a hobble skirt limited the wearer’s ability to take large steps. Hobble skirts fit snuggly over the wearer’s backside and then hugged her legs tightly. The hem was narrow enough to keep her from walking comfortably. Hobble skirts went out of fashion when World War I began – presumably because women needed to be active in supporting the war effort and couldn’t be bothered with a fashion that was worse than useless.
Bliauts were worn by women in Western Europe in the 11th to 13th centuries. They were dresses in which the bust was tightly fitted and billowing skirts flowed out from under the bust’s horizontal pleating or puckering. Till now, these dresses sound like typical women’s wear of the day. However, these dresses featured long sleeves that reached the floor.
Bliauts were designed for women of the upper classes who wore the sleeves to demonstrate that they didn’t work. It was clear that the sleeves wouldn’t allow a wearer to perform any type of mundane task so women who wore bliauts were required to only sit and embroider or crochet – anything that didn’t require them to move their arms for any type of mundane task.
When Elizabeth I became Queen of England in 1558, England was beginning to colonize the West Indies and tropical parts of the Americas — areas of the world in which sugar was produced. It was during her reign that sugar began to be imported into England and the Queen quickly developed a sweet tooth. She ate sweet foods until her teeth decayed, becoming black. Black teeth soon became a status symbol, signifying that the person’s family had money to buy sugar. English women in high society tried to imitate Elizabeth by blackening their own teeth so that they could showcase their family’s wealth.
In post-Elizabethian England – known as the Baroque period — upper-class men would wear white wigs. The wigs were designed to give the wearer an aura of importance but the origins of the wigs were a little less honorable. Many of the men had syphilis which causes a strong body odor. In order to cover over the smell, the en wore goat, horse or human hair wigs which were powdered in scents like lavender and orange.
Louis XIV of France adopted the fashion of wearing powdered wigs (in his case, he wore I also to cover over the smells of his syphilis and also to hide his prematurely balding head) and from there, the trend caught on in multiple European countries. In 1795, the British government placed a tax on hair powder and after that, the trend petered out throughout Europe. However, judges and many attorneys wear powdered wigs in British courts till today.
The bullet bra became a popular fashion in the 1940s and the 1950s. The bras are cone-shaped cups that make a woman’s breasts look like two bullets. There was no underwire in the cups but the stitching made them into pointy cones. The trend was adopted by many Hollywood stars of the era who combined the bras (also known as “torpedo bras”) with tight sweaters, leading to the new “sweater girl” image.
In 1990, Madonna wore bullet bras on tour, reigniting the fashion. Today some lingerie manufacturers produce them but they haven’t made it back into the mainstream.
The chopines evolved in Venice in the 16th and 17th centuries. They were shoe attachments worn by women who were looking for a solution for how to navigate through their muddy streets. Some chopines were high, high, thin heels which attached to the wearer’s shoe so that the women could walk through the water and the mud and still keep her feet clean. There were other types of chopines too – clog and overshoes, which fit below or over the woman’s shoe to keep her feet from getting wet and muddy.
Over time chopines with heels became fashionable. They were worn by women who wanted to be tall in order to give off an aura of importance and wealth.
The taller the heels, the more status the woman had. Chopine heels could be as high as 20cm and an attendant would be needed to help the woman maintain her balance.
Bombasting was another Elizabethian era (16th century) fashion and involved padded sleeves that made the high society English women who wore them seem as though they had “meatier” (well-fed) arms. For men bombasting their doublets padded out their bellies which was meant to give the impression of prosperity. At the same time, men used codpieces to puff out their pants for reasons of …..well, whatever. Some codpieces were made out of fabric and others were made of carved wood. Comfortable they were not.