Wednesday, June 27, 2012


What were some of the strangest - and sometimes most dangerous - fashion trends that women have followed through history?
Here's a brief look. 

One of the memorable moments of Gone with the Wind was watching Scarlett and the other southern belles flaunting themselves in enormous hoop skirts. Hoop skirts have been variously fashionable throughout history; in Scarlett's day, the hoops were actually a massive cage of steel or stiff fabric called crinoline worn under a skirt to keep it in shape.

But this was perilous fashion. The hoop skirt was susceptible to wind gusts; there are stories of women being swept out to sea, with the crinoline acting as a sort of sail. There were other perils; they could get caught in carriage wheels and were unwieldy indoors. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's second wife knocked over a candle with her skirt and went up in flames

In Chile in 1863, between two and three thousand people died in a church fire when women in huge hoop skirts piled up in front of the exit, making it impossible for anyone to get out.


The corset was more like an instrument of torture than a fashion device. Used as an artificial means of staving off a gym membership, the device was made doubly unpleasant for the wearer if it was tight laced. Some women suffered acutely for their artificial abs and a heaving bosom. 

In fact in 1903, a Mrs Mary Halliday of Niagara Falls woman even died when two pieces of corset steel snapped and lodged in her heart.

But mostly they just caused incredible discomfort, as can happen when your liver is relocated somewhere behind your collarbone for a few hours of high society

The only wonder, for these dedicated followers of fashion, is that feminism took so long to arrive ...


The chopine was a type of platform shoe popular during the Renaissance, used as a sort of overshoe to protect a lady’s real shoes and dress from the mud and ordure that littered the streets back in the day.
They became particularly fashionable among the courtesans of Venice. They were made of wood or cork and covered with brocade or velvet. But the fashion got out of hand; shoes became a status symbol, would you believe! The higher the heel, the further up the social ladder you were. Some were over twenty inches high. A woman could literally tower over her competitors.

Women wearing chopines were often accompanied by a servant on whom they could lean; though the Italian dancing master Fabritio Caroso wrote that a proper lady should be able to dance flourishes and galliards with them on. 

 Really? I would think it was like trying to dance a tango in stilts.


Lead was the cosmetic of choice from the times of ancient Greece right up to the twentieth century, I’m afraid. It gave the wearer a fetchingly pale complexion but turned the blood culture into something you’d expect to find at Chernobyl or Bhopal. It also damaged the skin; the only solution was to put on more lead on it to cover it up.

Elizabeth I, looking suitably pale

It takes years to accumulate to a fatal dose. Victims literally pale into insignificance. Meanwhile they put up with minor side effects like brain damage, paralysis, insomnia, and curiously, a limp wrist.

The most celebrated death from lead poisoning is believed to be Elizabeth the First.


Why do the folk you see on the walls of ancient Egyptian walls wear so much eye make up? Were they all trying to look like Kim Kardashian? 

Actually, it just helps reduce glare. The Egyptians not only had to cope with the bright desert sun but the pyramids and other public buildings were originally covered in stark white limestone (you can only see this veneer today at the very apex of the Giza pyramids) so every time they went outside it was like walking into a row of searchlights. 

But yes, it also looked great on Elizabeth Taylor. She just wore it to reduce the glare, too.


Footbinding produced the so-called ‘lily’ feet or ‘lotus’ feet once common in China. Women today may complain about high heels but this was probably one of the cruellest forms of foot torture ever invented. What were they thinking? Perhaps the Chinese saw what the Inquisition were doing in Europe and felt envious.('We want a Spanish boot too! ... Only let's put it on the women.)
Footbinding first became fashionable China in around the eighth century and persisted for almost a thousand years. Women were literally crippled by this custom.

A noble woman in Imperial China with normal feet was practically unmarriageable. (Only peasants had normal feet, because they needed to get about in the fields and work. A real lady showed her status by staggering around in agony or having someone carry her.)

While still a small child a rich girl had her feet soaked in a bath of urine and vinegar, then all the toes except the big one were folded under the foot, and secured with tight bandages. This soaking and binding process would continue throughout the girl’s childhood, with the result that the feet never grew more than three inches long.

Often this disgusting procedure led to gangrene; this was considered a good thing as the rotting toes would then fall off and cease being a nuisance! The ideal of perfection was to have hardly any foot at all.

Chinese men loved women with lily feet, even though the feet themselves were usually covered in silk slippers. And a good thing, too; under the bandages they were often a rotting, scabrous mess and stank to high heaven. One fashion trend we don’t want back. 
That, and flares.

See Colin Falconer's latest novel, Anastasia, here, 
and more history from Colin Falconer at  

From History and Women

Monday, June 18, 2012

Anastasia Romanov

Today, June 18th, 2012 would have been the 111th birthday of one of the most fascinating women of recent history – Anastasia Romanov.

To celebrate her birthday, Sourcebooks has kindly offered to give away a copy of The Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen. The giveaway is open to all residents of Canada and the U.S. To enter, read the following biography and leave your thoughts. The most poignant comment, the one that touches my heart the most, will win the book. 

The story of Anastasia Romanov is one of the most heart-wrenching stories ever told; it is about the horrific fate that she and her family suffered during the Bolshevik Revolution. To this day, the tragedy still resurrects doubt as to what exactly happened to the young Grand Duchess of Russia.

Anastasia Romanov

Anastasia was born into great wealth and privilege in the late spring of 1901. She came into the world amid the opulence of a vast palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. She was the youngest of four daughters born to Nicholas II and his wife Aleksandra.

Nicholas                                Aleksandra

After four daughters, at long last, several later, a son, the future heir to the throne of Russia, was born to the handsome couple.  

Vigorous and energetic, Anastasia was well loved as a child. She and her siblings were close-knit and spent all their time together. Despite their royal status, the children were not overly pampered or spoiled. In fact, they adhered to strict royal protocols and faced a rigid daily schedule for their schooling and meals. They spent their evenings together with Nicholas reading to them. Sometimes their aunt organized small balls to help the children prepare them for their future responsibilities.

Anastasia as a young child

Always rambunctious and active, Anastasia did not enjoy the confines of the school room. Science and numbers and figures confounded her. Spelling and grammar bored her and seemed to difficult to master. The drudgery of school work competed with her desire for fun and pranks and frolic. She preferred the outdoors where she could escape to hide in a tree or play. She possessed a strong competitive spirit to the point where she would not hesitate to do anything to win, even if it meant cheating or harming an opponent.

Small Anastasia was a cheerful child with a great sense of humor. A tomboy at heart! She loved her brother Alexy and they often entered into great acts of mischief together.

Anastasia and Alexei

Ever the spirited one, Anastasia indulged her fondness for chocolate and her favourite Pomeranian named Shvibzik. As she became older, she even began to secretly smoke and spent entire days reading novels.

One day, Aleksandra met a man named Grigory Rasputin. From that day onward, he was integrated into their daily lives. Anastasia was especially enchanted with the principled, elderly man. To him she confided her secrets, the yearnings of her heart. Their friendship was one of mutual trust and great respect. So all encompassing was their relationship, that her tutor complained about Rasputin to the Tsar and Tsarina. The tutor was fired and Rasputin’s standing in the family remained.

Grigory Rasputin

Meanwhile, rumours and gossip about the family’s strange relationship with Rasputin spread through the realm. Tsar Nicholas’ siblings voiced the greatest displeasure. Reluctantly, Nicholas sent Rasputin away to put a little distance between them. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, Rasputin was murdered. Poor Anastasia grieved long and hard at the death of her good friend and mentor.

World War I brought many changes into their lives. Their beautiful palace became a hospital for the wounded. Aleksandra and her eldest daughters tended the injured in the infirmary. Maria and Anastasia, too young for such hard work, read or wrote letters on the soldiers’ behalf, entertaining them as best as they could with games or books.

The Romanov Children

In early 1917, Anastasia and her siblings contracted measles, and it was while they were convalescing that the first of the family’s troubles began. Nicholas was away from home. The masses in Russia were revolting. Rebels had surrounded the palace. A fearful Aleksandra kept the truth from her children, explaining the armed soldiers outside as mere military exercises.

One month later, Aleksandra received the news that her husband had abdicated the throne. The rebels took the Romanov family into custody. When Nicholas returned home the family were constrained in their home, unable to leave for any reason. Outside the palace gates, whenever the public caught a glimpse of the imprisoned royals, they shouted nasty insults to the royals. Despite all the turmoil, the Romanovs strove to maintain as normal a life as possible.

That summer, the rebels decided to transfer the family to Tobolsk in Siberia. The family wished their servants farewell. After being herded into a train, the family was swept away from their beloved Saint Petersburg. Life in Tobolsk was restricted and boring. There was nothing to entertain the children. Soldiers surrounded them at all times. Even so, nothing could restrict the antics of the spirited Anastasia.

Picture of Maria with Anastasia sticking out her tongue at photographer

A year passed. Aleksandra and Maria accompanied Nicholas to Moscow for his trial. Anastasia and her other sisters remained at home to care for their Aleksey who was ill again. Upon their arrival, they were searched and all valuables were confiscated. While they waited for the trial, Aleksandra wrote to her children and asked them to hide the family medicine (a code name for jewels). Anastasia and her sisters sewed them into their clothing.

Thereafter, Anastasia, her sisters, and Aleksey were sent to Yekaterinburg in well-guarded, closed carriages, to join their parents. 

Photo of Anastasia on train to Yekaterinburg.
This is the last known picture of Anastasia before her death

There, they were held under even stricter confinement. They were not allowed outdoors and were not even permitted to open a window. Ever the free spirit, and longing for the outdoors, a frustrated Anastasia dared to swing open a window. A sentry witnessed her act and fired at her, closely missing her.   

The family began to show the first signs of stress at their severe treatment. Rumour of an alleged plot to rescue the Tsar began to circulate. This spurred the rebels into action. On the night of 17 July, sentries woke up the unsuspecting family and herded them all into the cellar. The made the family sit on the chairs. The girls took their hand-bags with them, and Anastasia even took Jimmy, her dog. Then the firing began.

After it was done, many believe that Anastasia, Maria and Tatiana were still alive – the jewels sewn in their dresses had saved their lives – and the soldiers had to finish the wounded girls off by hitting them hard with bayonet caps and butt-stocks. The murderers then gathered the bodies, wrapped them in bed sheets, and brought them to the outskirts of the village of Ganina Yama to be buried. The murderers wanted to keep their burial place a secret, but villagers noticed the grim cavalcade. The Red Army chased the peasants away, menacing them with guns. At the burial site, the killers went to work again. This time, to cover their tracks and any evidence that could identify the members of the Romanov family, they disfigured their victim’s faces with sulfuric acid, knives, and butt-stocks. Villagers heard the shell explosions at the ominous location. Others found some jewels that presumably belonged to the Tsar’s family, left behind by executioners eager to cover up their horrific crime.

Later, a crime investigators questioned the locals and ordered the burial site excavated, but the command was countermanded.  

Rumors that one of the Tsar’s daughters had managed to escape and stay alive began circulating. Homes, inns, hotels, barns, trains, and farms were searched, but to no avail.

In 1991, 70 years after the tragic event, excavations at the suspected burial site commenced. It did not take long to discover the bodies. They had been buried at little more than one meter in depth. Most of the bodies were identified, but that of Anastasia could not be verified. This gave credence to the rumours that she may have survived the killing. But if this was true, what happened to Anastasia? Where was the illusive, spirited young woman? Had she truly survived, living a quiet, unnoticed life somewhere in an obscure village, town, or country?

In the aftermath of the murders, many “Anastasias” have come forward to lay claim to her name and title. DNA tests have since disproved their claims. The truth will perhaps never be known. Wherever she is, I hope that Anastasia has the peace that eluded her in the last days she spent on earth.

From History and Women

Sunday, June 17, 2012


When I wrote Anastasia ten years ago there was still a lingering doubt about whether she had survived the botched execution in which the rest of her family were murdered. What was more certain was that the man who organised this bloody episode, Yakov Yurovsky, was a couple of cadres short of the full committee. He must have been off sick when they did Assassination 101 at Secret Police School.

On his orders, the family were herded into a basement and shot with revolvers through the doorway by him and his men, the gunpowder from their revolvers burning their eyes and creating a fog in the tiny room. They had to fire over each other’s shoulders and Yurovsky claimed he came out deaf in one ear.

Yakov Mikhailovich Yurovsky
This method was not efficient. Also, the women had hidden their jewels inside their corsets and these acted as virtual bullet proof vests so Yurovsky recorded that they then had to be dispatched with bayonets. It was beyond brutal.
These circumstances left open the possibility that someone survived this bloody chaos. There were rumours (later proven false) that for days afterwards the Bolsheviks searched trains in the Urals looking for a young woman fitting Anastasia’s description. 

For years the story of the missing princess captured the public imagination. Anastasia soon had more impersonators than Elvis Presley. The most notable, Anna Anderson, pursued her case in the European courts for over thirty years. After her death it transpired that she was not only NOT Anastasia, she wasn’t even Russian.

Anna Anderson

The remains of the Romanov family were finally discovered near Ekaterinburg in 1991. Intriguingly two skeletons were missing, those of a young woman and the boy, Alexei. 

Even then, it was impossible to imagine how Anastasia could have escaped, even if she survived the gruesome debacle in the basement and was still alive when they threw her on the cart with the rest of her family to be buried in the forest. And Alexei; just impossible. He was a haemophiliac. Any serious wound would have made death inevitable anyway.

But it wasn’t the mystery of Anastasia’s fate that motivated me to write about her. It was a story I read in the newspaper about a man in Liverpool, England who had been found unconscious in the street a year before and was still languishing in a public hospital. He had severe amnesia. Authorities published his photograph hoping that someone might know who he was and come forward and identify him.

I subsequently discovered that severe head trauma, when suffered simultaneously with severe emotional distress, can bring about a rare and long lasting amnesia. (The most famous - and saddening - case is that of ‘Benjamin Kyle’

I imagined that if Anastasia had survived, the shock of seeing her family murdered and afterwards being battered with a rifle butt would have turned her into another Benjamin Kyle.

This made me reflect on the nature of identity.

If we don’t have our memories then who are we? We still live and breathe, yes, but we no longer retain that which makes us ‘who we are’.

If we don’t have any remembrance, what is left of us?

For the story, I imagined a woman appearing in Shanghai in 1920 suffering from traumatic
Anastasia on Kindle
amnesia. People take her to be Anastasia - in order to fulfill their own agenda. Over time she struggles to become the person they want her to be - becoming someone else's idea seems better than being no one at all.

Is this what some of us do anyway - spend our lives becoming what others want of us? If so, how do we then discover who we really are - so we can follow our own course?

The question of memory has become more poignant to me over the last year. My mother is rapidly losing hers - sometimes she struggles to remember the man who was her husband for 52 years. She even takes a while to recognize me or my brother now.  

Who we are if we are not the memories we have accumulated and the name someone gave us is an interesting question. It intrigued me far more than whether Anastasia survived or not. She didn’t, by the way: in 2008, two more skeletons were discovered, 200 yards from the original grave site, and were positively identified as the missing two Romanovs.

From History and Women

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00241 Ferdinand Neumann
In the Sound of Music the nuns sang ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’ It’s more likely the more pressing problem in the Alps around that time was: ‘How do you solve a problem like Therese?’

Therese Neumann is a problem for skeptics, because she has never been satisfactorily debunked; yet here is a modern-day stigmatic who insisted she ate or drank nothing but the Eucharist for forty years.

Was it a miracle or Mass hysteria?

Walter J. Pilsak, Waldsassen
This extraordinary woman was born the in village of Konnersreuth, Bavaria in 1898 to a poor farming family, the eldest of ten children. From her youth, her nickname was “Resl.’ A sturdy girl, she claimed that she could do the work of any man - and had the same appetite. Her ambition was to become a missionary in Africa.

But her life changed in 1918 when she was partially paralyzed after falling off a stool helping to put out a fire in her uncle’s barn. She continued to try to work though, and this resulted in other falls, one causing a head injury that resulted in blindness. She became bedridden.

But four years later, on the day a saint called Therese of Lisieux was beatified in Rome, her eyesight was restored. Two years later, when this same saint was canonized, she was cured of her paralysis as well.

Therese of Lisieux
Later that same year she was diagnosed with appendicitis. She convulsed while being prepared for surgery and afterwards asked to be taken to the church instead of the operating room. She prayed to Saint Therese for her intervention for a third time and afterwards said she was cured.

This alone is cause for head scratching. But Therese Neumann’s life was to become even stranger.

On Good Friday in 1926 she claimed to have had visions of the entire Passion of Christ. She then started bleeding from her side, her hands, her feet - even her eyes. A priest was summoned to administer the Last Rites. But Theresa Neumann did not die. In fact, these same symptoms reappeared for the rest of her life, every Easter.

During these trances this illiterate peasant spoke Aramaic. She later developed nine more wounds, corresponding to the wounds from the scourging and the Crown of Thorns. Because of the bleeding she wore a head-cloth almost constantly, and this can be be seen in the many photographs of her.

Not one of the wounds ever healed, and it is said they were still imprinted on her body at the time of her death.

For the next forty years she ate or drank nothing except the Eucharist.

No one believed her. In 1927, the Bishop of Regensburg, Antonius von Henle, asked for a medical certification of the phenomenon. Therese was observed around the clock under medical instruction for two weeks by a medical doctor and four Franciscan nurses. The attending physician, Dr. Seidl, testified under oath in a Munich court on April 15, 1929, that there could be no question of Therese having taken any nourishment during the period of observation.

He said she had consumed nothing except for one consecrated sacred host per day and astonishingly, suffered no loss of weight, or dehydration.

photograph: Allan Warren 1973
But this was not Jennifer Jones in Song of Bernadette. In fact, the silent movie actress Lilian Gish painted a horrifying picture when visited her in 1928, in preparation for a movie role about her life. She was confronted with a short, pale, freckled woman with bad teeth sitting up in bed with a bloodstained nightdress, dried blood congealed under her eyelids, bandages wrapped around her head and hands, describing Christ’s passion to the Archbishop of Portugal.

She said that if she hadn’t been warned by a priest what to expect, she would have fainted.

The Nazi party, of course, did not like Therese Neumann. They wanted to send her to a mental home to be ‘cured.’ Her father wouldn’t allow it. Her family home and her parish church were targeted for attacks but she survived the war unscathed, despite her vocal opposition to Hitler.

photograph: Walter J Pilsak, Waldsassen
She eventually died on 18 September 1962, from cardiac arrest. The Resi was largely ignored during her life by the church; the Vatican is about ritual not mysticism. But a petition asking for her beatification signed by 40,000 people eventually forced the Bishop of Regensburg to open proceedings for her beatification in 2005. Don’t expect news anytime soon.

What do we make of her? Was she a fraud - if she was, no one has yet come forward with an adequate explanation of how she produced so many wounds throughout her entire life; she was never caught in forty years eating or drinking. Was she the most ingenious and stoic hoaxer who ever lived?

If not, then how did the stigmata come about - and how did she survive her inedia for so long? Was it supernatural intervention - or did this illiterate peasant woman manifest such remarkable events through the power of her own mind?

It’s a mystery that’s never been rationally explained.

So - what do you think?

 See more history 
from Colin Falconer 
From History and Women

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


She was one of the most extraordinary young women in Chinese and world history, but you probably never heard of her. 

Her story could have come straight from a Walt Disney cartoon, The Little Mermaid in ancient China; there’s a good Dad, an evil villain and the struggle for Utopia. What it doesn’t have is a handsome prince and a happily ever after - at least not for our courageous princess.

Her name to history is Princess Pingyang. 

She was one of eight daughters fathered by a man named Li Yuan, who had been born a peasant but had risen through the ranks to become a general in the army of the evil Emperor Yang. (No, I’m not making this up.)

Yang had taken the throne after having his father poisoned by hired assassins. No less than six million people then died working on his plans to extend the Great Wall and the Grand Canal - over ten per cent of the entire population. He was one of the most thoroughly unpleasant men in history; Donald Trump with attitude. 

evil emperor Yang

Yang then invaded Korea and Vietnam, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory despite overwhelming numerical superiority. He lost a million men in those campaigns and bankrupted the empire. Then, to prove the first time wasn’t a fluke, he did it a second time, this time with an army of slaves, conscripts and paroled prisoners.

Li Yuan was one of the few military commanders to have fought with honor and retained the respect of his men. So,  true to character, Yang sent him into exile .

With the Empire in shambles and the countryside ravaged by bandit gangs and warlord armies, Li decided to revolt. He sent for his daughter Zhao and her husband, Chai, who were unfortunately living inside Yang’s palace; Chai was commander of the Emperor's Palace Guard. 

General Li Yuan
Zhao told her husband: you go, don’t worry about me. He said, oh all right then and took off. The young woman then somehow avoided Imperial assassins and roving bandit tribes and made it home to the family estates in Huxian. 

Instead of feeling faint and lying on the lounger waiting for Daddy to return from exile to rescue her, she sold off her family's home and land and used the money to raise an army - which became known as the "Army of the Lady." 

She was anything but ladylike. She approached local bandit leaders, and offered them commissions in her new army if they joined her; if that didn’t work, she bribed them. If any failed to be turned by her coy smiles and fluttering eyelashes she routed their army, executed them and seconded their troops.

She played rough but she had a good heart. She forbade raping and pillaging; instead she threw open her family’s rice stores and fed the starving population. This hearts and minds policy won her massive support and soon her army had swollen to a fighting force of over 70,000 warriors. 

Yet still Emperor Yang did not take her army seriously - military genius that he was - because it was led by a woman, and one barely out of her teens, at that.

Late in 617, her father returned, crossing the Yellow River; so Pingyang joined him, setting up her own separate headquarters. She then joined the final assault on the Imperial palace at modern day Xi'an. General Li seized the throne and declared himself Emperor, becoming the first ruler of the Tang Dynasty.

It was a dynasty that was to last three centuries, and is now seen as the high point in Chinese Imperial civilization. China grew to become the largest and most powerful empire on Earth. Philosophy, trade and the arts flourished.

Up until that time, women were little more than slaves, required to obey their father before marriage, their husband during marriage, and their sons in widowhood. But over the next hundred and fifty years China underwent dramatic change. Women won the right to own land, to divorce and even to remarry.

women even won the right to wear
even the wearing of Mickey Mouse ears was legalised
A Tang Dynasty divorce agreement, unearthed from Dunhuang, reads: "Since we cannot live together harmoniously, we had better separate. I hope that after the divorce, niangzi (a form of address for one's wife) can be as young and beautiful as before, and may you find a more satisfactory husband. I hope that the divorce will not plant hatred between us in the future."

So Princess Pingyang not only won the throne for her father - she helped win emancipation for the sisters, too. Unfortunately she did not get the happy ending she also deserved. She died at just 23 years old, two years after her father assumed the throne.

Her father gave her a military burial fit for a general; when officials of the Ministry of Rites objected he said: "The Princess personally beat the drums and rose in righteous rebellion to help me establish the dynasty. How can she be treated as an ordinary woman?"

It was China's Renaissance. Lily feet, subservience and Mao Tse Tung were still to come. But for three centuries China and Chinese women prospered, thanks to one of the most extraordinary and courageous young women in history, riding at the head of the Army of the Lady.

See more history from Colin Falconer at LOOKING FOR MR GOODSTORY

From History and Women