Strange Beauty: The 7 Bizarre Fashion Trends of Our Ancestors


If you thought the big hair of the 80’s, bell-bottoms of the 70’s, and saggy jeans in the 90’s were ridiculous… you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Through the annals of history there have been plenty fashion trends that people in modern times would roll their eyes at. From stuffing your clothes to walking on stilts, there were many different ways to flaunt your social status through appearance.

So let’s take a look at seven trends in particular that will make you glad you were born in the 21st century.

1. Bombasting

During the Elizabethan era in Britain, bombasting became extremely popular. At the time both men and women would bombast their clothing by padding their sleeves with stuffing, creating a bulbous silhouette.

Men would even stuff their doublets in order to create the appearance of a large, full belly. The average doublet of that time would typically have four to six pounds of padding for the purposes of bombasting.

While bombasting (in the Elizabethan style) died off in the 17th century, padded clothes persisted. During the colonial era men would pad their calves to make them look more muscular.

The massive stuffed sleeves even made a comeback in the late 19th century as well. These days you’d likely see padding in bras or other underwear.

2. Powdered Wigs

In the late-16th century there was a widespread “great pox” (syphilis) outbreak that was causing men and women all across Europe to go bald. As a result, wig-making and wearing became popular for those suffering from the disease.

Long hair became a status symbol as early as the middle ages and wigs were very common even before the syphilis outbreak. However when King Louis XIV began to wear wigs it became high-fashion.

Balding at the young age of 17 (likely due to syphilis), Louis kept 48 wig-makers on retainer in order to keep his head covered. His cousin, Charles II of England, began wearing wigs to hide his gray hair and the fashion trend became an international sensation.

Powdered wigs continued to be very fashionable up until the French Revolution in the late 18th century, when the British began taxing hair powder.

3. Scented Cones

Ancient tomb paintings from Egypt depict women wearing cones on their heads. Historians believe that these cones, made of scented grease or wax, acted as personal air fresheners. The cones were likely worn to large indoor gatherings and banquets where hot temperatures would melt the cones, releasing a smell.

There has not been a wealth of archeological evidence to support the paintings as no intact cones have been found. This leads many historians to believe that the cones depicted in the pictures are symbolic of scented wigs and not meant to be taken literally.

4. Hobble Skirts

Much like high-heels, hobble skirts were fashionable and seemingly created to inhibit women’s movement. This tight-fitting skirt was named after the term (hobbling) used to describe tying a horse’s feet together to prevent it from running off.

Paul Poiret, French designer, is the one credited with making the very first hobble skirt in 1910. The skirt hugged a woman’s legs and closed together tightly at the legs. This allowed women to have a defined figure without wearing a corset or petticoat.

Poiret is claimed to have said about his skirt, “Yes, I freed the bust … but I shackled the legs.”

5. Stilts

Believe it or not, stilts actually have a functional use outside of being worn by circus performers. In 19th century rural France, shepherds often relied on stilts to traverse the countryside since roads were uncommon.

In a Scientific American article from 1891, a journalist describes the stilts:

“The stilts are pieces of wood about five feet in length, provided with a shoulder and strap to support the foot. The upper part of the wood is flattened and rests against the leg, where it is held by a strong strap. The lower part, that which rests upon the earth, is enlarged and is sometimes strengthened with a sheep’s bone. The Landese shepherd is provided with a staff which he uses for numerous purposes, such as a point of support for getting on to the stilts and as a crook for directing his flocks.”

The village of Landes, France are where the stilts originated and the Landese became masters of the art of stilting, women and children included.

6. The Symington Side Lacer

Back in the Roaring ’20s, women were actually trying to flatten their figures out and rectangular “boyish” silhouettes were all the rage.

The Symington Side Lacer was a bra designed specifically for that purpose. A woman could constrict her bosom by pulling on the side-strings, smoothing out any curves.

7. Chopines

Chopines, the predecessor to the modern heeled sandal, were designed for women to navigate the uneven streets of 16th century Venice. They started out with thick, modestly raised soles. As years went by, designers created taller and taller soles.

Some of them (like the ones pictured) were 12 inches high and the most extreme ones got up to 20 inches. The taller the heels, the more important the person wearing them.