5 Outrageous Fashion Trends from the Ancient World

The eternal quest to be ridiculously good looking is one we’ve been on since time immemorial. From elaborate, exquisite, and downright weird clothing choices, to sexy-but-deadly cosmetics, and wearing fake bears and towering hairpieces, humans have done it all in the name of beauty!

Swan Fat, Crocodile Dung, and Snail Ash: Achieving Beauty in Ancient Rome

The ideal Roman female was a woman of extraordinary white skin as it was evidence to onlookers that the woman spent much of her time indoors, thus was wealthy enough to afford servants and laymen.  However, since the natural skin tone of a Roman woman was closer to olive than ivory, there was still a necessary unnatural process of powdering the face.  This involved the use of chalk powder, crocodile dung, and white lead to whiten their entire face.

Some intriguing beauty regimes also included taking baths in asses’ milk for the skin, used by the infamous Queen Cleopatra, lover of Marc Antony, in Egypt; swans’ fat and bean meal were used to treat wrinkles, and the ashes of snails could supposedly cure freckles—a negative indication that the woman spent time in the sun too often.  False beauty marks were often utilized to cover sores or pimples and the cheeks were reddened with the use of rose colors, chalk, poppy petals, or—once again—even crocodile dung.  It was not uncommon for the husband to kiss his wife and find his lips stuck to her face from this process.

Women in ancient Rome. Romantic scene from a mosaic in Villa at Centocelle, Rome, 20 BC – 20 AD (Wikimedia Commons)

Women in ancient Rome. Romantic scene from a mosaic in Villa at Centocelle, Rome, 20 BC – 20 AD ( Wikimedia Commons )

High Heels, Once an Essential Accessory for Men

High heel shoes are today a form of footwear worn almost exclusively by women. Yet, the history of high heels shows us that this was not always the case. On the contrary, high heels were, at various points of time in history, worn by men as well. The ‘kothorni’ was a form of footwear worn by ancient Greek actors from at least 200 BC, which raised from the ground by wooden cork soles that measured between 8 and 10 cm. It is said that the height of the shoes served to differentiate the social class and importance of the various characters that were being portrayed on the stage.

In medieval Europe, both men and women wore a footwear known as pattens. The streets of many cities at the time were muddy and filthy, whilst the footwear of that period was made of fragile and expensive material. Thus, to avoid ruining these garments, both men and women wore pattens, which were overshoes that elevated the foot above the ground.

High heels were used by Persian cavalrymen as they were highly effective at keeping the wearer’s feet in the stirrups. At the end of the 16 th century and at the beginning of the next, diplomats were sent by the Persian Shah, Abbas I, to Europe to seek alliances against a common enemy, the Ottoman Turks. European aristocrats who saw the Persian high heels quickly adopted it as it was a symbol of masculinity, apart from its practical use for horseback riding, and as a status symbol.

Louis XIV wearing his trademark heels in a 1701 portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud (Wikipedia)

Louis XIV wearing his trademark heels in a 1701 portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud ( Wikipedia)

Big Wigs and Hairpieces: Artificial Hair of Ancient Egypt

For thousands of years humans have been reinventing their image with various headdresses, wigs, hair extensions and hats, for a multitude of purposes. Preserved wigs reflect the fashion and cultural expressions of societies, and reveal the everday lives of the ancients.

The most ancient of wigs and hairpieces dating back to early recorded history were made and worn by the Ancient Egyptians. Wigs were worn for a variety of reasons, but were a mainstay and essential part of a wardrobe—especially for the elite of society—as wearing a wig indicated high status. It is often said the heat of the region caused people to shave their heads and faces in Ancient Egypt, and they then wore wigs to protect their heads from the sun while remaining cool. However, styles varied and heads were only sometimes shaved, whereas other times short hair was worn underneath wigs or false hair extensions. As such, wigs weren’t solely a protective headcover. They played a significant role as fashion statements and served as social signifiers.

In 2014, archaeologists found a number of human remains at Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, sporting elaborate and well-preserved hairstyles, including a woman who had more than 70 false hair extensions. Dyed red with henna, the extensions were attached to her head in various layers and heights around her head. Her complex hairstyle was typical of wigs and extensions used in everyday life, now a very rare find in ancient burials.

Colossal bust of Queen Ahmes-Merytamun (Ahmose-Meritamon), wearing a Hathor-wig. 18th dynasty, circa 1550 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Colossal bust of Queen Ahmes-Merytamun (Ahmose-Meritamon), wearing a Hathor-wig. 18th dynasty, circa 1550 BC. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Allure of Blackened Teeth: A Japanese Sign of Beauty

Ohaguro ( ‘blackened teeth’) is a practice in which people dye their teeth black. While this custom is known to be practiced in different parts of the world, including Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and even South America, it is most commonly associated with Japan, where it was regarded as a sign of beauty.

It is unknown when and how the practice of Ohaguro began. Nevertheless, it became popular at some point of time during the Heian period (8th – 12th centuries AD). During this period, it was the aristocrats, especially its female members, who practiced dying their teeth black. By the time of the Edo period (17th – 19th centuries AD), this practice had spread from the aristocratic class to other social classes as well.

The traditional method for obtaining black teeth involved the ingestion of a dye in a drink called Kanemizu. To create the dye, iron fillings were first soaked in tea or sake with vinegar. When the iron oxidized, the liquid would turn black and, when drunk, would cause the drinker’s teeth to turn black. In order to keep the teeth black, the process would be repeated once a day or once every few days. The results seem to have been permanent, as there are skeletons from the Edo period whose teeth are still black due to the practice of Ohaguro.

As part of the new Japanese government’s attempts to modernize the country, Ohaguro was banned in 1870.

A woman with teeth stained black by the practice of Ohaguro. (peterbrown-palaeoanthropology.net)

A woman with teeth stained black by the practice of Ohaguro. ( peterbrown-palaeoanthropology.net)

High Fashion of Ancient Egypt: The Bead-Net Dress

In ancient Egypt, looking fashionable was an important part of everyday life, especially for the elite members of society.  One of the high-class fashions was the bead-net dress. Although historians were aware of artistic depictions of females wearing bead-net dresses, it wasn’t until the 1920s that real examples were actually discovered.

Articles of clothing made of beads were considered to be a fashion amongst ancient Egyptian women. Priestesses, for instance, wore beaded headdresses and beaded collars. Upper class women also wore nets of faience beads across the middle third of their tunics for festive occasions. For poorer women, they had to be content with a string of beads around their waists.

Bead-net dresses were made with thousands of beads arranged in a lozenge pattern, and although it is believed that women wore such dresses in daily life, most examples have been found in burials.  These precious garments are extremely rare, as only 20 of them are known at present.

Top image: Royal fashion. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock

By Liz Leafloor

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