15 Scary Fashion and Beauty Trends from History

Margot Robbie Mary Queen of Scots Focus Features

The fashion and beauty industry can sometimes be scary, and some of the latest beauty treatments insane – Botox or injecting your own blood into your face! But the pursuit of beauty has always been a dangerous business. Check out some of these scary beauty practices from history.

1. The Tiny Waist

There are few of us who aren’t familiar with the idea of the corset, the constricting device that Victorian women used to give themselves a tiny waist and an hourglass silhouette. But was the corset really worse than the modern Spanx? Well, yes. Corsets severely restricted the wearer’s lung capacity, causing the fainting spells which Victorian women were so famous for. Their restricted lung capacity also meant that they were more likely to die from ailments such as pneumonia and tuberculosis. They could also cause internal organ trauma and broken ribs. Not satisfied with the effects of the corset, some women had ribs removed in the name of beauty.

2. The Tiny Foot

The Chinese practice of foot binding is probably as well known as the corset as a women’s cosmetic practice with dire consequences. It started as a practice for upper-class court dancers in the 10th century looking to move gracefully in their tiny dancing shoes. It was soon adopted by wealthy families. Families that could accord to bind the feet of their women could that their women were too valuable for manual labour. It was traditional for mothers to administer the treatment to their daughters starting at about the age of 2. They would fold the toes over and bind them tightly as possible, causing incredible pain and crippling their daughters.

3. Mayan Head Binding

Waists and heads are not the only things that people have bound in the name of fashion. Starting around 1,000 BCE the Mayan people would bind the heads of infants to wooden boards in order to elongate the skull. Unlike most of the beauty practices on this list, this was done to both male and female children. The resulting aesthetic was probably considered beautiful and a sign of social standing.

4. The Tapeworm Diet

In the 1880s women were encouraged to digest tapeworms to stay slim. They would take tapeworm cysts in pill form, and then endure days of vomiting and diarrhoea until they reached their ideal weight. They would then have to pass the worms out of their system, which often caused stomach and rectal issues. Like many diets, this was generally a short-term weight loss fix, and not worth the possible side effects such as meningitis and epilepsy.

5. Black Teeth

For hundreds of years the Japanese aristocracy practiced Oraguro, or teeth blackening for cosmetic effect. The process began in childhood with multiple applications of dangerous chemicals to children’s teeth. The chemicals had many side effects and the practice was banned in 1870. The Japanese were not alone in coveting black teeth. Queen Elizabeth I loved her sweets, but considering dental hygiene wasn’t great back then and the amount of sugar in the sweets, her teeth turned quite black. Since sugar was considered a luxury, and the queen a trendsetter, some women blackened their own teeth to emulate Elizabeth.

6. Lead Foundation

In 18th century Europe unnaturally white skin was considered beautiful and a symbol of wealth. White facial powders were also excellent for covering up the blemishes many people had due to illnesses, such as pockmarks. It was found that the best way to achieve this chalky white look was lead-based foundation. Of course the lead also did significant damage to the skin, causing blemishes, and encouraging women to use even more, in a vicious cycle. More than skin deep, it could also cause brain swelling, paralysis and organ failure. Some women, in pursuit of their ghostly look, would also use leeches on their faces, to drain just a little blood to leave them a little whiter.

7. Arsenic wax

Hair removal has always been painful. Anyone who has ever plucked, waxed or epilated knew that. But women have long coveted hairless skin. In Victorian England many women would burn the skin off their body using creams derived from arsenic. Painful and potentially deadly.

10. Arsenic for your Hangover

Not satisfied with putting arsenic on their skin, Victorians were also encouraged to take arsenic in order to keep them looking fresh and awake. A little arsenic was said to give a glowing complexion, brilliant eyes and big boobs (but random, but hey). Of course, eating this poison also caused diarrhoea, bloody pee, cramping muscles, hair loss, stomach pain and convulsions.

9. Poison Eyes

Arsenic was not the only beauty poison utilised by our ancestors. In Renaissance Italy, in order to enlarge the pupils of the eyes and make them more attractive, some women squeezed Belladonna, otherwise known as Deadly Nightshade, onto their pupils. This caused them to dilate, giving them that Japanese cartoon look that we still like today. Of course, extended use of the poison also eventually led to blindness.

10. Bug Lips

Lipstick has been popular for as long as we have had the language to talk about lips! The ancient Mesopotamians created lipstick by crushing gemstones and beeswax – a product that would no doubt be considered luxury today. The Egyptian developed the recipe further, adding seaweed, bromine mannite and iodine to create different shades. Eventually Cleopatra came up with her own signature colour by crushing poison beetles and using their insides to tint her lips. It only requires 70,000 beetles to create one pound of the dye.

11. Plucking

As well as waxing their legs, Renaissance women needed to keep their facial hair under control. The long and luxurious eyelashes that we seek today were considered overly sexual and were often plucked in order to leave the face looking clean. They also coveted a large curved forehead to emphasise the other facial features. For this they would pluck their eyebrows, and also their hairlines, with the receding hairline considered the height of elegance.

12. Lysol Clean

In the 20th century Lysol, yes the powerful bathroom cleaner, was also marketed as a feminine hygiene cleaner – one product for your bathroom and yourself. It was claimed to prevent infections and keep vaginal odour at bay, leaving your privates more youthful and your marriage more blissful. Of course, it also caused inflammation, burning and even death.

13. Rat Infested Wigs

In the 18th century it was the fashion for women to wear enormous decorative wigs, often 2-3 times the height of their head. Constructed using a wooden frame, they were secured to the head for long periods of time using beef lard. Unsurprisingly these wigs were breeding ground for lice, and also rats!

14. Nose Job at Home

The quest for the perfect nose is not new. The “Nose Helmet” was designed to be tightly and painfully strapped to the face, allegedly eventually reshaping the nice. It probably only succeeded in giving its wearer a headache. Similar machines were also available to develop dimples or eliminate double chins.

15. Anti-Aging Crocodile Excrement

The Greeks and Romans regularly used reptile excrement in their body toning mud baths to keep their skin looking youthful. The wealthy would also create anti-aging mud masks with the reptile poo, with crocodile excrement considered the most effective and desirable.

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