What’s the craziest fashion trend you ever saw?  The Zoot suit?  The leisure suit?  Go-go boots?  Goth?  As wild as those trends were, they still don’t compare to some of the wacky things people have done over the centuries all in the name of fashion.

Torture, greed, vanity, lust – the stories read like the seven deadly sins and led to some of the most controversial styles in fashion history.  If you thought bee hives and bell bottoms were extreme, just take a look at these:

Lotus Foot
China, 10th Century

The royal families of China set a new standard for beauty – and pain- by creating the Lotus foot.  Inspired by a Prince’s beautiful concubine with small feet who danced on her toes in shoes shaped like a Lotus flower bud, women began binding their feet in order to replicate the shape.  The practice quickly caught on, and soon the wealthiest families in China were binding and breaking the feet of their daughters at age 5 or 6 to keep feet small and under 3″ in length.  It was the ultimate status symbol, because by limiting mobility it meant these women couldn’t work which by default meant they must come from affluent families. It also meant that they had to marry a man wealthy enough to support them and their servants.  In time, the size of a woman’s foot became the #1 factor in how well she could marry. Remarkably, this practice lasted more 1,000 years and impacted millions of women, until it was outlawed in 1949.

Lotus Foot

Hairless Face
Europe, 11th Century

Since clothing styles changed very slowly and only local fabrics (wool, fur) were available, women of rank and status began removing the hair from their face and head in order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes.  They’d remove their eyebrows, eyelashes, and much of their hairline in order to achieve a hairless face and high forehead.  It was very labor intensive, as some women plucked every day, and created an almost alien-like appearance.  Starting around 500 AD, this practice lasted more than 1,000 years, through the Elizabethan era.


Portrait of a Woman

Italy, 14th Century

Venetian merchants trading along Silk Road brought back many new and wondrous things from China including fireworks, spices, and platform shoes.  In the days before paved roads, people would slip into pattens and clogs — elevated wooden overshoes used to walk through mud and animal dung — but when the silk and elaborated decorated chopines first appeared in Venice, Italian courtesans went crazy for them and began wearing them as a status symbol.  The higher the platform, the higher the social standing.  Some were as tall as 30″ (.762 meters) and required walking assistance from servants less the wearer fall off her shoes.  The trend spread throughout Europe in various platform heights and lasted until the 1600’s when they were gradually replaced by high heels.


France, 15th Century

The hairless face took on new prominence when the women of Burgundy began to further elongate the face with elaborate headdresses in the early 1400’s.  Constructed from wire and sumptuously decorated with silk, jewels and scarves, hats appeared in all shapes and sizes. One cone, two cones, butterflied, and dome-shaped, these hats became the subject of ridicule by children and condemnation from the pulpit.  Nonetheless, spectacular headgear for women was a la mode for over 100 years.


Somber Opulence
Spain, 16th Century

After Columbus discovered the new world, Spain established trade routes to the Americas and quickly overtook Italy as the major importer in Europe.  They also began setting styles.  Flush with wealth yet devoted to the Church, Spaniards introduced corsets that flattened the chest, hoops that widened the skirts, and ornate collars and sleeves — all in sumptuous fabrics and dark colors.  This silhouette spread throughout Europe, with fabrication and ornamentation varying by country.

Infanta Catalina Micaela

Big Wigs
France, 17th Century

When Louis XIV of France began losing his hair in the mid-1600s, he started wearing large, curly wigs.  His court naturally followed suit.  Because wigs were expensive and difficult to maintain, they became and remained an essential part of high society costume for nearly 150 years.  Politicians, lawyers, and judges all wore wigs, which is where the term “big wig” originated in describing someone of importance. By the eve of the French Revolution in the 1770’s, women’s special occasion wigs had grown to 2 feet in height and might feature miniature ships or castles made of gems. Because these towering wigs were expensive to create, they were often worn for weeks without washing or combing –¦which sometimes led to infestations by lice and rats.


17th Century Wig

France, 18th Century

The hoop skirt of the 16thcentury returned 200 years later in the form of panniers, a sort of split hoop that widened the hips and distended the skirt sideways (panniers is the French word for large baskets slung over the back of pack animals).  The hoops were so wide that women had to go through doors sideways and would have to buy tickets for the seats on either side of her at the opera or theater.  The skirts were much ridiculed by cartoonists of the day, and were even dangerous, as many women were burned by getting their enormous skirts too close to fireplaces or candles.  Nonetheless, the style remained in vogue for nearly 60 years.



Europe and America, 19th Century

Corsets originated in ancient Greece and were used off and on since the 1500’s.  But when a small waist became essential to the 19thcentury silhouette, women started tightening even more and began introducing their daughters to corsets when they were as young as eight.  These exceedingly tight corsets led to misshapen bodies, miscarriages, and more, and doctors condemned and blamed them for almost every female complaint they received.  Women’s Rights advocate Amelia Bloomer began criticizing corsets as well in the 1850’s and called for new clothing standards for women, those that would allow them to participate in sports and move around freely.  She was largely ignored and corsets remained popular through the 1920’s.


19th century corset

Paris, 1870’s

As the very wide hoop skirt began to fall out of favor in the 1860’s, Charles Frederick Worth, the “Father of Haute Couture” sought a way to change the look but still use voluptuous amounts of fabric in order to keep his textile suppliers in business.  He pulled the hoop out from under the skirt, gathered all the fabric in back, and fashioned it into an elaborate bustle and train.  It was shocking to see the flat front and sides of woman’s body, and middle class women hated it on sight — which is why it became instantly fashionable among the upper classes.  The S-shaped created by the bust, corset, and bustle eventually became the ideal, and the bustle remained popular until early 1900’s.


Bustle by Worth

Straight Chemise
America, 1920’s

When American women finally got the right to vote in 1919, they decided it was time for a few other changes as well.  They cut their hair, threw away their corsets, and started dancing the night away in their figure-obscuring straight chemises.  This new freedom was so radically different from the constraints their Victorian mothers and grandmothers knew that it literally sent shock waves throughout the western world.  It also allowed clothing manufactures to successfully mass-produce women’s clothing for the first time since the chemise did not require the customization that clothes worn with corsets did.  The women’s ready-to-wear-industry was born.


So, still think big glasses and shoulder pads are extreme?  Try breaking your feet or squeezing into a corset!  Even poodle skirts and bell bottoms don’t seem so bad after that¦

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    2 replies to "The 10 Most Extreme Fashion Trends EVER"

    • Julie W.

      One the of the ugliest fashion trends was the leg o mutton sleeves that were popular in the 1800s.

    • Claudia

      This is a very interesting post!

      Since the 19th century corset came roughly about the time when anesthesia first made “real” surgery possible (as opposed to the earlier quick-and-dirty-amputations), some women actually had their floating ribs removed in order to be able to wear their corsets even tighter.

      Many of the 19th century corsets were made of steel, with steel eyelets, and canvas (like the rig of a transatlantic schooner), as opposed to the earlier corsets made of whalebone and softer fabrics, with stitched eyelets, and those could not be pulled so tight without tearing. So the “modern” corset was more or less indestructible, and it actually had the power of deforming the skeleton. The angle between the ribs, where the sternum ends, which is normally around 90 °, was compressed to zero, and the spine was actually forced into a scoliosis position. I saw the pictures in an antiquarian surgery textbook.

      So I would agree that modern liposuction and bunions are not so extreme. But who knows whether our of-the-moment 6″-stilettos will not become an exhibit in the fashion museum of unhealthy fads sooner or later…

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