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

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A said…
The depressing things women have done for passion. But is it really worse than some of our practices today?
Barbara said…
I didn't know that about hoop skirts! It sounded funny at first, but then also tragic.

Good thinking for the Egyptians! Perhaps they could integrate comfort with fashion better?

I had always heard of the foot binding, but I'd never seen a picture until now. I think my feet will forever burn after looking at that poor picture.
Lucy said…
The only practice that actually made sense is the khol on Cleopatra. Leave it to Cleo to look gorgeous under those protected killer stares!
Great piece- loved it:)
Unknown said…
Probably not worse, Amanda - but I don't know there's anything quite as appalling as foot binding or as dangerous as hoop skirts - but then I don't have to wear high heels. And yes Barbara, that picture is really unsettling - it brings it home just how bad foot binding really was. Glad you ,liked the piece too, Lucy ... Thank you all for commenting!