This story is over 5 years old.



Imagine if, when you were a kid, your parents used elaborate and painful methods to force your head or feet into bizarre and permanent shapes. Or imagine if the surest way to get a decent job was to stand perfectly still while your friend hacked the...


Imagine if, when you were a kid, your parents used elaborate and painful methods to force your head or feet into bizarre and permanent shapes. Or imagine if the surest way to get a decent job was to stand perfectly still while your friend hacked the side of your face with a cutlass. Now imagine never washing your hair until it became a hardened crust or being completely covered in mites and lice for your entire life. Or imagine living in permanent fear that your neighbors might at any moment decide to hunt you for the fur on top of your head.


Of course this isn’t fantasy: It’s history. Over the centuries, human beings have practically turned themselves inside out—and on occasion happily turned others inside out—for the sake of status and style. Let’s take a wee stroll down memory lane.


Some fashions were the result of indifference. A good example of this is the Polish plait, which was a crusty, oily mass of filthy, matted hair. Often as hard as a helmet, it was a tangled mess held together by dried blood, dirt, dead lice, and pus. Generally, Polish plaits were the result of neglect, but they could also be brought on by particularly nasty lice infestations, in which spent eggs would act as a kind of mortar.

This condition was believed to have been especially common among the Polish peasantry, who superstitiously believed it brought good health. Peasants would actually spread fat on their prized scabby crowns, which they lovingly tucked under woolen hats.

Polish plaits became even more fashionable when King Christian IV of Denmark developed one. He trained it into the shape of a pigtail down the left side of his head, adorning it with ribbons as a kind of lovelock. Naturally, it soon became de rigueur in his court to follow suit. In fact, a kind of connoisseurship developed around Polish plaits, and an entire vocabulary developed around the endless shapes they assumed.


Hygiene, like clothing, is also subject to fashion, and there were many ways people dealt with vermin residing in and on their persons. Europeans living between the 16th and 18th centuries were notoriously unclean. During the Middle Ages, they bathed regularly at public bathhouses, also called “stews.” But after the Black Death struck, Europeans were wary of public baths, blaming them for the plague. Add to this a growing European population without effective sanitation, which led to a general fouling of all open water near human habitation, and you can understand why there was such a strong aversion to bathing. By the 16th century, most Europeans barely bathed at all, possibly twice a year—although the wealthy would occasionally wipe themselves down with linen cloths. It should then come as no surprise that people of rank would carry around something—anything—to keep the incessant animal stench at bay. Pomanders were tiny, ornate metal balls full of herbs, spices, and dried flowers for people to wave under their noses to provide temporary relief from the fetid airborne broth that constantly stirred about them.



High-ranking Italian noblemen of the 14th century took up the fashion of wearing tunics short enough to reveal their testicles. Those who felt insecure about their heft would often wear a leather falsie known as a


. It’s doubtful that this was intended to fool anyone. It may have been done for the same reasons female pharaohs wore false beards: It was a symbol of power and potency. Like a crown, but hairier.


Scalping was a widespread practice in North America for thousands of years and, for some tribes, was an important rite of passage—in other words, anybody who was anybody took scalps. Scalps were not only a trophy but also a fashion statement, decorating a man’s clothes and weapons. What one wore literally spoke volumes, and a man festooned in scalp pelts and tassels was someone to be reckoned with.

Luxuriant or distinctively colored hair was highly sought-after, and victims were often singled out in raids for this reason. It’s a morbid irony that the Scotch-Irish, statistically the most redheaded population on Earth, would be the ones settling in the wilds of Kentucky and Virginia during the 18th century. One imagines that jokes among white settlers were often made about taking along their ginger pal for a hunting trip as a decoy, in case they were ambushed.


It was not only the scalp hunters who had to keep up appearances. Contrary to what most people might assume, many victims of scalpings actually survived their attacks. Today we imagine most scalping victims to have been men, but almost half are now thought to have been women or children. Among many tribes, the scalp of a woman or a child was considered a great prize, because it meant that the warrior in question penetrated the village of his enemy, which took increased skill. Those who survived such a brutal encounter often found that their facial features would droop, so women took up the practice of tying their remaining hair in particularly tight braids to support their faces.



In many societies, it was (and in some places still is) fashionable to intentionally contort the body into strange shapes. Perhaps the most notable example was the surprisingly widespread practice of head binding, which involved wrapping an infant’s pliable head in a tight cloth or between two boards until it elongated and assumed a conical shape, which was deemed very attractive, as well as a sign of intelligence. The brain would simply adapt to the shape of the skull, so apparently no damage would occur, but it does make one wonder whether changing the shape of the brain case also changed the way that the brain functioned. Did it affect vision? Memory? The ability to think about wide objects?

Head binding was most famously seen among the Incan and Mayan upper classes, although it has been practiced in the Pacific Northwest, Borneo, Congo—even North American tribes like the Choctaw practiced head binding. Europe also had its head-binding traditions. People living in certain parts of Normandy practiced it as recently as the late 19th century. The ancient Huns were rumored to have practiced head binding as well. The sight of a horde of Huns with strangely shaped heads charging your city walls on horseback must have been a terrible, almost inhuman sight.


Fashions have also led to military disasters. A style of shoe called a


enjoyed its height of vogue during the 14th century. Poulaines were leather slippers sporting pointed toes that could reach ridiculous lengths; toes were often stuffed with whalebone or moss. Accounts tell of noblemen fastening the tips of their shoes to their knees with ribbons or slim chains to aid in walking. Sumptuary laws would sometimes try to dictate how long one’s shoe points could be; noblemen could have points that extended almost


two feet

past their toes—which was their little way of letting others know they did little but sit on their plump white asses all day. In general, everyone’s shoes tended to arrive at a place five minutes before they did.

All this sounds ridiculous, but you have to cut these people some slack: The Black Death had just wiped out everyone they knew. Crazy shoes gave everyone a much-needed lift of goofiness. Seven centuries later, they’re still funny.

Unfortunately, this seemingly innocuous excess in footwear resulted in the disastrous defeat of the French at the hands of the Turks at the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. The French crusaders charged too deeply into the Ottoman ranks and quickly found themselves overwhelmed and on foot. Desperate to escape, they lopped the tips off their pretty shoes so they could run away. Fat load of good it did them, though, as most of them were overtaken and cut to ribbons. Didn’t even get to die well shod, the poor devils.


Here we have the bound, stunted “lotus feet” once seen among the noblewomen of imperial China. When a young girl was between four and seven years old, the four small toes on each foot were broken by her mother and folded under the sole of the foot. Then the entire foot was very tightly wrapped in cloth to slowly diminish its size, eventually forcing the toes and heel to meet, forming a folded, three-inch fleshy hoof that was prone to infection and so would often smell like rotten cheese.


Needless to say, the process was excruciating, but a girl’s prospects depended on her following through with this disfigurement, as a noblewoman without bound feet was unlikely to marry. To the nobility, women with regular, unbound feet were considered ugly and low. As the practice eventually spread throughout Chinese society, women with unbound feet weren’t scorned so much as unheard-of.

After two years of ever-tightening bonds, a girl’s “lotus feet” could at last fit into extremely tiny, embroidered—yep—“lotus shoes.” You can see lotus shoes in just about any museum, and they are beautiful little things, but the sight of them will never fail to send a shooting pain through your legs.

Women who underwent this ordeal were effectively crippled, unable to walk without assistance, and never without pain or discomfort. Women of the higher ranks whose feet were especially compressed were incapable of anything as lowly or useful as work—which of course was the whole point. Such extremely tiny lotus feet were a display of the emperor’s wealth, privilege, and confidence in the security of his position. Amazingly, this practice persisted in remote parts of China well into the 20th century, and there are still elderly women alive today who underwent the procedure when they were young.

So there you are: Some women’s feet hurt because they wear Blahniks, and other women’s feet hurt because they





Some societies have fetishized outright disfigurement, and some examples are neither exotic nor ancient: The


(bragging scar) was all the rage among university fraternities in late-19th-century Germany. These highly prized, often gruesome facial scars were the result of a form of ritualized sword dueling known as


. Mensur was seen as a rite of passage and a means of moral instruction rather than a way of settling disputes—and by most accounts, participation was mandatory.

Young men were required to don gloves, padded aprons, and metal goggles, which left the face exposed to the blows of the brightly colored, razor-sharp


—heavy sabers—wielded by each opponent. Both duelists were forbidden to move or to show any hesitation. Composure was all: To flinch or wince was deemed shameful. Scars resulting from these bouts were considered a mark of social status and courage. Those who were injured would often use irritants on their wounds to accentuate the scars, sometimes even physically reopening them. Some men would try to heavily scar the left side of their faces while leaving the right untouched—thus, in a strange way, preserving their looks. Such scars were found to be very attractive by young women and would often win a girl with a large dowry. Accounts of visits to German universities before WWI mention how common it was to see young men walking around with bandaged faces. Despite being fairly nationalistic and right-wing, these dueling societies were banned by the Nazis, who saw them as a political threat. The practice of Mensur continues to this day in Germany, although often in secret, since its legality is unclear.


Many people in 16th-century Europe would wear collars of fur about their necks and shoulders to lure the countless fleas away from their bodies and clothes. By the 18th century, women’s elaborate hairstyles were veritable hives of vermin—a problem only worsened by the copious amounts of fat and flour they applied to their elaborate hairstyles. Because of this, it was common to find long metal scratching tools placed alongside the silverware at the dinner table, so that the ladies had a means of relief.


Some fashions compensated for disfiguring medical conditions. Eighteenth-century Europe was a time of unprecedented artifice in fashion—people in the upper classes were essentially ambulatory theater sets, dripping with props. Makeup was caked on to smooth out their smallpox-ravaged faces. They would even try to smooth out their features from the inside as well: Most people lost their teeth at a shockingly young age, and as a result their cheeks would cave in. To counter this, they used small lumps of cork, called plumpers, which were stuffed into their cheeks. This affected the way they spoke, which soon became fashionable, even among those who still had teeth.

Of course, the list of such extremes in fashion is endless: children of political rivals kidnapped and horrifically mutilated for the amusement of royal courts, kids raised inside large vases to conform to their shape, men castrated to preserve their higher singing range, guillotine parties at which women wore cropped hair and red ribbons around their necks… you name it. Corny, tattooed catmen notwithstanding, people of our time are unusually tame with their style choices: Fashion Week has nothing on the Comprachicos. But who knows: If times continue to get more precarious, fashions might get weird again, fast. We might be shooting each other in the streets in five years, but our placenta-fan headdresses will look pretty damn fetching.