“Suffer for Beauty” was a common mantra for fashion and beauty mavens through the ages, as styles of dress and beauty aids proved too irresistible regardless of inconvenience or discomfort just to reap the rewards of pulchritude.
In many cases, women didn’t just suffer but actually died because of these trends, making them, literally, victims of fashion. Pieces like the corset, of course, continue to inspire designers to this day, but with the pandemic era of lockdown loungewear and slip-on footwear, it may disappear again the way it did in the roaring ’20s, after the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I, liberating women from the constraining undergarment.
During the Victorian era, the corset was used not just to be fashionable but also to maintain one’s reputation of ladylike propriety since uncorseted women were considered loose and scandalous.
The advent of eyelets made tight lacing possible, driving women to obsess over getting a wasp waist, resulting in serious health risks from indigestion to damaged organs and internal bleeding.
In the case of Mary Halliday in 1903, her corset led to sudden death, with the autopsy revealing two pieces of corset steel that had pierced her heart. With today’s advances in surgery, some even resort to rib removal to achieve that small waist, even if recovery can be painful, with possible complications.
Lush eyelashes were another desired feature that confirmed one’s moral uprightness after Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder wrote that lashes fell out from excessive sex. To prove their chastity, women supposedly went to great lengths, even having lashes implanted into their eyelids with needles, risking infection.
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Things changed with the invention of false eyelashes, which reached the height of popularity in 1916 after Hollywood director D.W. Griffith demanded “supernatural lashes” for his Intolerance star Seena Owen, a look achieved by using spirit gum to attach lashes made of human hair.
Hoop skirts and crinoline
To emphasize tiny waists more, the Victorians went crazy over hoop skirts or caged crinolines, which grew larger to the point that they restricted the movement of the wearer, as well as the movement of others because of the space they occupied. They were also fire hazards, with an average of three crinoline-related deaths a week reported in the mid-1800s, including Oscar Wilde’s two half-sisters.
A vibrant green always had an allure for fashionistas — a shade that was achieved in the 19th century with the use of a dye called Scheele’s green, which contained copper arsenite, a compound that poisoned garment workers as well as wearers, many of whom were suffering from headaches, skin sores and cancer.
Scheele’s green is no longer used now but dyeing fabrics for fast fashion produces industrial waste that gets dumped in waterways in some countries, polluting the environment and endangering the health of its people.
If portraits of Elizabeth I always feature her face so spectral, credit is given to Venetian ceruse, a 16th-century cosmetic whitener that caused lead poisoning. In Japan, kabuki actors and geisha used oshiroi white makeup, which contained lead and zinc.
Countess Coventry, a famous Irish beauty and ceruse user, died at age 27 in 1760 because of her maquillage. White skin was a status symbol for the elite who did not have to work under the sun, although in the 20th century, a tan became fashionable, with jet setters getting their sun-kissed look at tony resorts in the winter — only to become unfashionable again with the prevalence of skin cancer and premature wrinkles, making sunblock and skin whiteners ala mode.
The fontange, a high headdress popular in the late 17th century, was named after Duchesse de Fontange, mistress of Louis XIV, who lost her cap while hunting with the king and decided to tie her hair up with ribbons and pins, starting a trend that became more elaborate and taller in time, using lace and other materials, necessitating larger pins that were lethal both for the wearer and those around her. Accidents of pin stabbings were reported, not to mention women catching fire because of the size of the headpiece.
The hobble skirt
All the rage from 1910 to 1913, the hobble hugged the legs and cinched in at the ankles. Getting its name from the term for binding a horse’s hooves together to keep them from running off, they served a similar purpose in limiting a woman’s mobility, forcing her to walk with mincing steps and subjecting her to perilous falls.
Popular among China’s upper crust during the Song Dynasty, foot binding by breaking and tightly binding the feet of young girls to change their shape and size into a “lotus flower” lasted till the 19th century when these “lotus feet” were still considered status symbols and highly desirable to men. Aside from deforming the feet, the practice could cause infections and prove fatal.
Crakows or “Poulaine” shoes, originating from Krakow, Poland, are bizarrely long and pointy and quite difficult to manage, but were popular in the medieval ages, as seen in paintings. They would be worn extra-long as a symbol of upper-class style, even if wearers would be prone to accidents.