Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
- Oscar Wilde
Throughout the history of the world, men and women of all ages and all nations have been willing, nay, desperate, to do the most atrocious things to themselves and their children in order to keep in fashion. When it comes to matters of vanity, all of humanity is seemingly gripped with insanity. Many ideas of what it is to be 'beautiful' have come and gone. Indeed, what many men and women once thought to be beautiful now seems grotesque and disfigured to modern eyes.
In the future, many of the ideas promoted in fashionable colour supplements may be viewed with the same abhorrence, with little thought to those who actually strived for that false ideal; the achievement of being fashionably beautiful. This is an ideal to which many have been willing to sacrifice not only the beauty they had, but also their lives, gaining nothing as a result. This ideal creates what some of those same glossy magazines would call their 'Worst Dressed List'. But it also leaves many innocents in its wake. These are the Fashion Victims.
The Trends of the Past
From the very beginnings of human existence the desire to look good has been vital. Psychologists have intoned that fashion harks back to the basic human instinct of obtaining a mate for procreation; the best dressed ones were always lucky in love. Most creatures on Earth do have peculiar 'dress-sense' when it comes to taking a significant other, for example the male peacock with his fantastic tail display. In fact, plumage is integral to the continued survival of most birds. Other animals use different styles. Lions display wonderful manes and tigers have their stripes. Elephants often show off their magnificent tusks, while the smallest spiders like to spin wonderful patterns to impress a potential partner. In many ways humans have copied their animal friends in methods of attraction, some for the better... but most for the worse.
When humans first thought it might be a grand idea to cover up and protect their bodies because it was getting chilly, the best thing they came up with was (to all indications) the loin cloth. A simple ragged piece of animal skin and fur, it left little to the imagination and to be quite honest, didn't do much to protect from a nasty Ice Age breeze. The clever Homo sapiens decided living in caves and putting on more animal fur to actually survive, rather than prance about in leopard skin thongs, was the way to go.
In this case evolution succeeded in killing off the loin cloth, although the Hollywood film industry and the story of Tarzan created a stir, bringing the clothing back into vogue for a short time. It was thought by brilliant studio executives that a man running about in the jungle with not much on would appeal to a wider audience; namely ladies (and some gentlemen) who liked watching muscular young men swing from trees and wrestle crocodiles in little more than what they were born in. They may have been right, but the loin cloth thankfully remained firmly on the screen, not on the streets.
When you are at Rome live in the Roman style; when you are elsewhere live as they live elsewhere.
- Saint Ambrose
Togas are quite simple clothing; what some might term a lightweight dressing gown. Thought to have been created by the Romans, togas are actually more Greek in design. Perhaps the Mediterranean climate can be blamed for this. Heat (along with a little modesty) led to togas becoming fashionable, especially amongst the Roman elite, senators and Caesars alike. A person's toga became their status symbol, an indication of how rich and important they were. This of course made the wearer the perfect victim of robbery, kidnap or murder as they were undoubtedly wealthy.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the toga fell into disuse. It has in more recent times, however, become popular amongst certain social groups, particularly American College Fraternities, where 'toga parties' are an apparent excuse to dress in little but a white sheet and get drunk, although it is altogether confusing as to why young males and females need reasoning for this activity.
The Elizabethan 'Ruff'
Queen Elizabeth the First of England loved a bit of 'ruff', most notably Sir Francis Drake. Or more importantly, what was around his neck. The 'ruff' was the Elizabethan equivalent of the tie, but instead of a thin strip of fabric hanging from the neck it was a circular piece of white (that invariably turned greyish-browny) fabric that sat about the neck like a large round scarf. It gave the impression the wearer was attempting to dress as a pantomime flower, but actually properly succeeded in making them look like a slightly ridiculous variety of mushroom.
A symbol of social prestige (much like the Roman toga), the ruff was of vital importance to the wealthy and well-known. Indeed, the larger your ruff, the more important you were deemed to be. The ruff was also a haven for many parasites; lice, fleas and even the odd weevil were found to make their home in the clothing and cause continual irritation or even infection to the wearer.
I like big butts an' I cannot lie...
- Sir Mix-A-Lot, musician
During the Victorian era1 of English history, an article of women's fashion became much sought after by the gentlewoman. It was the bustle, a contraption that affixed itself to the backside and thus enhanced this particular portion of a woman's body when fully dressed. It had its origins in hoop skirts, which were basically skirts that hung from a hoop around a woman's waist. The hoop evolved into an oval with one peak of the ellipse holding the woman's waist, the other sticking out behind and the dress hanging accordingly.
During the 1860s the bustle was commonplace, but fashion dictated that the protrusion grow larger. By the end of the 1880s the trend had grown to almost whale-like proportions and ladies started to favour the wearing of simpler garments that enabled them to get in and out of carriages and through the doors of their houses without the aid of a shoe-horn.
The desire to be thin is not a new one for women. During the Hundred Years War, a war fought between England and France from 1337-1443, Isabeau of Bavaria, queen consort of Charles VI of France, was said to decree that her ladies-in-waiting should have a waistline of between 10-13 inches. This may or may not be true, but still fashion led to some corsets becoming so tight as to cause the stomach and back muscles in the women wearing them to atrophy, meaning that they were no longer even able to sit up without corsets, and were forced to wear them in bed. In extreme cases autopsies confirmed that the woman's liver had all but been cut in two, with other organs forced out of their natural position. Tight corsets also deeply affected the lungs, and therefore the way the wearer breathed. Women wearing them were forced to breathe from their chest alone, and not from their abdomen, as is normal. The tight corsets therefore meant that women were forced to breathe quickly and shallowly, a habit which often resulted in fainting.
During the Victorian age, wearing tight corsets was an act women chose to inflict on themselves as adults, despite the advice of doctors and men who described women in tight corsets as looking '...like ants with a slender tube connecting the bust to the bottom'. Many corsets were also made from 'whalebone', actually the horny baleen plates of the Humpback Whale, an example of the ecosystem suffering for fashion. Yet despite all these facts, women continued to wear corsets, and during the 20th Century corsets gained notoriety among the BDSM2 scene.
God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.
- Hamlet, Act III, Scene I
Sometimes clothes were not enough to catch the eye of a potential suitor. Beauty was in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder must not see all the ugliness that age and time wreaked upon a face. Ancient civilisations like the Egyptians (who wore 'kohl' about the eyes) and the Greeks (who not only used facemasks, rouge, eyeliner and lipstick in some form or another, but also took to dyeing their hair blonde) were some of the first to begin wearing what is commonly referred to as 'make-up'. It wasn't until the Renaissance - that period of human history which was apparently a time of enlightenment, art, science, discovery - that make-up became high fashion. Venice became the centre of the new make-up industry and it was embraced by the fashionable elite, with societies formed for the testing of make-up, including members as grand as Queen Catherine De Medici of France.
The testers were subjected to many concoctions with ingredients like mercury, arsenic and sometimes the musk of dead animals. Queen Elizabeth I also regularly used white lead. From the 16th to 19th centuries Venice specialised in the sale of Venetian ceruse, which was made of white lead and was poisonous when absorbed through the skin's pores. The women who wore the make-up, like those who wore corsets in the 19th Century, were not ignorant of the danger their make-up posed. Physicians at the time warned them of the danger of the ingredients in their make-up, and the Church preached that they were punishing themselves for their vanity, but for the women wearing the make-up only being fashionable mattered.
Venetian ceruse had the effect of making women's skin look like a ghastly, white mask, as if the women had been coated in plaster. The women who wore it usually just kept adding the mixture now and then rather than wash the old layer off. The white lead rotted the wearer's teeth (creating terrible bad breath in the process) and turned their skin yellow, green and red. Hair could fall out, the eyes would swell and inflame, watering often in agony. The mouth and throat would become affected and the lead would gradually destroy the woman's lungs.
Mercury was a fashionable make-up ingredient. It was believed to clear the skin of spots and freckles, which it did, but it also removed the skin and corroded the flesh. The woman's teeth would fall out and the gums would recede. The mercury not only affected the wearer; the poison stayed within the woman's body and was passed on to her children. A little eyeliner or some lipstick could do wonders, but when one went to powder one's nose, one wanted to return to the table for the rest of the meal, not spend the night discovering the merits of heavy metal poisoning3.
Animals - The Victims
Fur coats (ermine, mink, fox, seal etc). Whalebone corsets. Snakeskin shoes, handbags etc. Alligator shoes, handbags. Our cruelty is no longer just inflicted on ourselves and our children: animals have make-up tested on them to discover its side-effects, as well as being farmed for their skins and furs, not because there is no other way to keep warm in winter, but because it is 'fashionable'.
I'm so worried about the fashions today, I don't think they're good for your feet...
- Terry Jones
The list of fashion faux pas continues; the things people have done to themselves is too long to ever know. In Europe at the end of the 18th Century, women were willing to cut their toes off just to wear smaller shoes. In China the technique of foot binding may still be in practice, and all over the world various forms of piercings and tattooing are seen as both cultural expressions and fashion triumphs. Throughout the world, as a 'modern civilisation' we have not stopped this gruesome trend that has lasted throughout history. Rather we have used our inventive mind to think up new, advanced ways to inflict pain on ourselves using special technology, or even worse - fashion designers.
In the Western World, the favourite hobby of a large number of women is buying shoes that are going to cause them foot disorders, just because it is the fashionable thing to do. High heels and pointy toes often just produce blisters, which is not too serious a problem, but can also result in corns. There is an enormous history of footwear that defies purpose. The platform shoe, the stiletto heel, the flipper, the Wellington boot. All these apparently designed to inflict as much pain upon the wearer as possible, rather than provide comfort or support for the foot. Then there are those who persist in wearing socks with sandals, so perhaps all of the former examples can be forgiven.
One of the extremes many people go to in the pursuit of looking fashionable is undergoing cosmetic (or 'plastic') surgery. In the UK £211,000,000 was spent on cosmetic surgery during 2001, with 33% of operations being liposuction, 19% 'tummy-tucks' and 15% breast implants. Other common types of surgery included rhinoplasty, commonly called a nose job, that routinely involves breaking the nose in order to change its shape; and face lifts, where the skin is stretched to make it appear younger. Botox injections, collagen implants and laser treatment to whiten teeth are some of the other techniques people use to be fashionable amongst their peers.
These operations are common among both men and women, with some as young as 15 opting for surgery. Men have also gone to extreme lengths, almost literally, choosing to have penis enlargements. Silicone implants, the most common method of enlarging breast size, have left some women with bigger problems than having to buy larger bras. Silicone implants have been known to burst, leaking silicone into the body. This results in silicone poisoning and necrosis, a flesh-eating condition. Skin can turn black and often stinks, chest pains and vomiting are common and in more extreme cases the person can suffer poikilothermia4, paralysis, arthritis and heart attacks. These occurrences are not altogether appropriate for those with a fashion conscience, as death isn't a good look5.
In westernised society it is apparently fashionable to be thin. No-one knows exactly why - after all, a more rounded woman has long been admired, especially in Rubenesque paintings. Liposuction and 'tummy-tucks' have resulted in women ending up with two belly buttons, no belly-button, severely damaged stomachs or even dead. For those who cannot or will not pay the extortionate rates charged for the ridiculous idea of having your stomach sliced in half and your body fat removed with a trumped-up vacuum cleaner, eating disorders such as anorexia have resulted. This is a very upsetting psychological and physiological disorder, but not the only one associated with body image. The fashion industry has provided role-models for the ideal of beauty; however, the concept seems to have caused more concern than happiness in the human belief that beauty is attainable perhaps only by being fashionable.
A Whiter Shade of Pale
One idea that keeps changing in the world of fashion is that of skin colour, especially in regard to sun tans. Until recently it was the fashion in Europe for women to have the whitest possible skin. Only the working class who had to work outside would get a sun tan, so a white skin showed that you did not have to work, and were therefore important. More recently it has become fashionable in Europe and America to get a dark sun-tan by exposing your body to the sun's radiation and possibly mutating skin cells. However, at the same time as many people are lying underneath giant sunlamps trying to get a darker skin, many others, especially in Asia, are trying to get lighter skin. Skin-whitening laser treatment is growing in popularity. Patients go beneath lasers that look as if they've been borrowed from the set of the James Bond film Goldfinger, on the grounds that it would result in lighter skin, but in reality this poses significant risks.
The next step in following fashions involves the inevitable accessories that accompany a 'perfect outfit'. Small animals have come to replace fur coats. A small obnoxious dog carried in a handbag is preferable to a dead mink coiled about one's neck. For the more affluent, a wonderful accessory is an expensive car. Anything worth more than a small Pacific island is best. However, some prefer to show their awareness of fashions by adding something smaller. The latest mobile phone, or in fact the smallest piece of technology available on the market is a must. There are inherent risks with these items though, such as exposure to radiation or complete ignorance to the world around when using said technology. This can result in collision with other people or at very worst, stepping out in front of large transportation vehicles.
A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.
- George Bernard Shaw
There seems no end to human stupidity and sheer mad inventiveness when it comes to creating and following absurd fashions. Every decade of modern history6 and many eras of the past have seen fashion horrors - some too ghastly to mention. There can be no denying that, should it become fashionable to emulate that paragon of beauty the Venus de Milo, and have both arms amputated, many otherwise perfectly normal people would fight tooth and nail to be among the first to follow her example.