Thursday, April 19, 2012



Footbinding produced the so-called ‘lily’ feet or ‘lotus’ feet once common in China. Women today may complain about high heels but this was probably one of the cruellest forms of foot torture ever invented. What were they thinking? Perhaps the Chinese saw what the Inquisition were doing in Europe and felt envious.('We want a Spanish boot too! ... Only let's put it on the women.)
Footbinding first became fashionable China in around the eighth century and persisted for almost a thousand years. Women were literally crippled by this custom.

A noble woman in Imperial China with normal feet was practically unmarriageable. (Only peasants had normal feet, because they needed to get about in the fields and work. A real lady showed her status by staggering around in agony or having someone carry her.)

While still a small child a rich girl had her feet soaked in a bath of urine and vinegar, then all the toes except the big one were folded under the foot, and secured with tight bandages. This soaking and binding process would continue throughout the girl’s childhood, with the result that the feet never grew more than three inches long.

Often this disgusting procedure led to gangrene; this was considered a good thing as the rotting toes would then fall off and cease being a nuisance! The ideal of perfection was to have hardly any foot at all.

Chinese men loved women with lily feet, even though the feet themselves were usually covered in silk slippers. And a good thing, too; under the bandages they were often a rotting, scabrous mess and stank to high heaven. One fashion trend we don’t want back. That, and flares.


But lily feet are not the only form of torture women have endured in the name of beauty. In certain African and Asian cultures neck rings are worn to assist a woman’s matrimonial chances. Was this fashion inspired by African men thinking giraffes were hot? I'm not sure but in certain cultures, girls as young as two were fitted with spiraled metal coils, and these were gradually increased, some by as much as twenty turns. 
photograph Steve Evans

The neck doesn’t elongate of course. That’s called execution by hanging and as such is not a very effective fashion trend. What happens is the weight of the collar depresses the collar bone and ribs down to a position forty five degrees below what is normal. Yeah feels good.

These days the custom only persists because of the tourist industry.


The chopine was a type of platform shoe popular during the Renaissance, used as a sort of overshoe to protect a lady’s real shoes and dress from the mud and ordure that littered the streets back in the day.

They became particularly fashionable among the courtesans of Venice. They were made of wood or cork and covered with brocade or velvet. But the fashion got out of hand; shoes became a status symbol, would you believe! The higher the heel, the further up the social ladder you were. Some were over twenty inches high. A woman could literally tower over her competitors.

Women wearing chopines were often accompanied by a servant on whom they could lean; though the Italian dancing master Fabritio Caroso wrote that a proper lady should be able to dance flourishes and galliards with them on. Really? I would think it was like trying to dance a tango in stilts.


Lead was the cosmetic of choice from the times of ancient Greece right up to the twentieth century, I’m afraid. It gave the wearer a fetchingly pale complexion but turned the blood culture into something you’d expect to find at Chernobyl or Bhopal. It also damaged the skin; the only solution was to put on more lead on it to cover it up.

Elizabeth I, looking suitably pale

It takes years to accumulate to a fatal dose. Victims literally pale into insignificance. Meanwhile they put up with minor side effects like brain damage, paralysis, insomnia, and curiously, a limp wrist.

The most celebrated death from lead poisoning is believed to be Elizabeth the First.


Why do the folk you see on the walls of ancient Egyptian walls wear so much eye make up? Were they all trying to look like Kim Kardashian? 

Actually, it just helps reduce glare. The Egyptians not only had to cope with the bright desert sun but the pyramids and other public buildings were originally covered in stark white limestone (you can only see this veneer today at the very apex of the Giza pyramids) so every time they went outside it was like walking into a row of searchlights. 

But yes, it also looked great on Elizabeth Taylor. She just wore it to reduce the glare, too.


So far we’ve only talked about women’s fashions. But in the mid eighteenth century there was a clique of young male British aristocrats who made today’s metrosexuals look like cage fighters. At one curious point in our history the indulged sons of the Regency rich came back from their gap years in Europe and turned into Lady Gaga.

In an age where men wore plain and simple dress these guys didn’t come out of the closet as such - they just wore everything that was in it. The look consisted of towering, elaborate wigs with tiny hats perched on top like a cherry on a ice cream sundae accessorized with garish waistcoats and bright colored stockings. They even developed their own language, a mixture of French and Italian words with curiously accented English. Regency rap.

It scandalized Britain and attracted widespread outrage and ridicule. The fashion did not go unnoticed overseas: it even featured in a famous lyric in the colonies. "Yankee Doodle went to town a-riding on a pony, stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni."

There; now I finally know what that lyric means. You learn something every day.

Now some of you may have noticed that I haven’t been answering comments; that’s because my comments system keeps falling over. I can’t stand it anymore, so I’m leaving the Dark Side and making the move over to Wordpress this weekend. Wish me luck! I’m sure the new system will be better. Meanwhile I’ll leave a link to the new site here at blogger.

All this week Who Dares Wins Publishing has been promoting AZTEC as a free book, along with Atlantis 'Devils Sea' by Bob Mayer, and Rekindled by Jen Talty. It's a fantastic offer so if you'd like to take advantage of it, follow the links! Offer ends tomorrow!