Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History

Natasha sheldon - November 12, 2017

Having the right hair, nails, makeup, and body shape- even the perfect teeth- sound like modern preoccupations. However, they were just as important to people in the past as they are today. While the desire to look good has not changed with time, fashion has- and so have the ways and means with which to achieve the look of the day.

Modern tastes and preoccupations can relate to some past beauty standards. Others, however, seem odd, alien or intriguing. Similarly, some old methods employed to change hair, skin and body shape are equally jaw-dropping. Some are stomach-churning, while others are downright deadly- demonstrating that in the past- just like today- some people would do anything for a ‘killer look.’

To illustrate the similarities and differences between the beauty standards of today and yesterday, here is a sample of some of the weird, wonderful and worrying fashions from the past- and the methods used to achieve them.

Forehead Plucking

During the Middle Ages, a lady’s face was not always her fortune. According to Victoria Sherrow in “For Appearance’s Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks,” breasts were more of a feature, while faces with a ‘ plain, empty appearance’ were desirable to persuade admirers to look lower down. An open, expansive face was partly achieved by scraping back the hair and hiding it under a hood or veil-which also conformed with the church’s moral policy. However, a high hairline was required to give a lady’s face maximum exposure. Not every woman had a naturally high forehead. So, to raise their beauty rating, Medieval ladies raised their hairlines artificially.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Portrait of Isabella of Portugal by Rogier Van Der Weyden. Google Images

While the church may have wanted hair covered, they did not wish female members of their congregations to remove it wantonly for the sake of fashion. Priests who spotted signs of facial hair removal treated these ‘lascivious’ ladies to a lecture on the mortal sin of vanity. However, they grudgingly accepted the practice if the woman removed the hair “to remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.” Plucking the hairline did not fall into this category.

Ecclesiastical disapproval notwithstanding, the simplest and most common method was to pluck out the unwanted hair. Tweezers made of copper, bronze, and silver were all standard parts of the Medieval beauty kit. However, if a woman wanted to remove a lot of hair, plucking alone could prove to be a painful and arduous procedure. So, like today, ladies turned to depilatory creams.

Some of the preparations for hair removal were plant-based and seemed harmless enough. Parsley juice, Gum of Ivy, milk thistle steeped in oil and walnut oil were all believed to stop hair growth- especially if applied with pressure. Recommendations for application to the hairline included rubbing along the affected area or binding in place with a bandage while letting time and the concoction take their course.

Other preparations, however, are more unpalatable to modern tastes. Dr. Lemury’s Curiosa Arcana, published in 1711 preserves some ‘interesting’ suggestions for depilatory preparations. One recommendation was to grind eggshells and boil them in water to form a paste. The lady would then rub this into her hairline, presumably to exfoliate away the hair. This option was probably preferable to another favorite preparation Lemury records: cat’s dung in vinegar. For optimal results, Lemury recommended taking “hard, dry cats dung” and grinding it to a powder before mixing with vinegar and applying.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Seena Owen in ‘Intolerance.’ Google Images

Eyelash Implants

To help achieve this ‘plain open face,’ ladies in the Medieval and the early modern period would also remove their eyebrows and even their eyelashes for an entirely hairless look. However, by the nineteenth century, the pendulum of fashion had swung the other way. Now, ladies didn’t want to pull their eyelashes out: they wanted long, thick lashes instead.

Books and magazines began to publish helpful hints to help the fashion-conscious to lengthen their lashes. Some suggested cutting the ends off existing eyelashes to encourage growth. Others prescribed eye baths made of walnut leaves steeped in water.

Sadly, these methods did not supply the thick, seductive lashes ladies craved. So more extreme methods were employed. In 1882, a Parisian newspaper reported how some ladies in the French capital were attempting to implant extra eyelashes. This eye-watering procedure involved a practitioner threading human hair through the subject’s eyelid with a needle. Despite the pain caused and the procedure’s dubious success rate, it continued for some years as it was also reported on by the Scottish press in 1899.

Some women tried to stick eyelashes onto their lids with glue without success. Then in the early twentieth century, false eyelashes were invented. On November 2, 1902, Karl Nessler a German-born hairdresser living in London patented “A New or Improved Method of and Means for the Manufacture of Artificial Eyebrows, Eyelashes and the like.” Instead of applying lashes individually, Nessler’s eyelashes were sewn onto a fabric base and then adhered to the eyelid.

The idea quickly caught on, and when film director D W Griffith wanted Seena Owen, one of the actresses on his film “Intolerance” to have longer lashes, he ordered her a pair made of human hair woven onto gauze. The lashes were applied using spirit gum. However, this had a nasty effect on Seena whose eyes swelled so badly they were ‘nearly shut” when she arrived on set one day- fortunately after all her close-up scenes were concluded!

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Tang dynasty lady with short, stubby eyebrows. Google images.

Eyebrow Fashions

Eyebrow fashions have varied across time and the globe. Ancient Greek ladies favored the monobrow as the height of beauty and style. If they could not grow their own, they would fake it by creating stick-on brows made of goat’s hair. Up until the eighteenth century in Europe, the eyebrowless look was in vogue, until suddenly fashion switched again and eyebrows began to make a comeback.

Up until recent years in the west, eyebrows have tended to be quite conservative, regarding colors and shapes. However, recently, shading eyebrows in bright colors have become popular, as have a variety of different styles. This range in eyebrow fashion may seem a modern innovation, but colored and styled eyebrows were a tradition practiced in ancient China.

Painted eyebrows date to the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history- somewhere between 771 to 476BC. Unlike today, the actual brows were not dyed but shaved or plucked away and then redrawn in a variety of colors. Initially, Chinese ladies favored black eyebrows, using expensive conch ink imported from Persia to paint their chosen design. Once the Chinese discovered they could cut conch ink with copper ink, they created a cheaper product that was available throughout society.

However, in the second and third century AD, green and blue eyebrows became fashionable- at least in royal circles. According to Accounts of the Dressing Table, the Emperor of Wei State, Wu, required all his consorts to draw their eyebrows in blue. This color, known as quingdai, was made up of an indigo base, imported either from Persia or the state of Cao in northwestern Samarkand in central Asia.

Wherever it came from, Quingdai was prohibitively expensive- which was why Wu wanted his ladies to use it; to provide a visual display of his wealth. Either way, Emperor Wu’s court set a fashion that remained popular. Wu did not just have preferences in color: he liked his ladies’ eyebrows painted in a particular shape too.

Accounts of the Dressing Table reveals that there were at least ten eyebrow styles to choose from, varying from short and blunt to long and elegant. Emperor Wu preferred his ladies’ blue eyebrows to be long and straight with tapering ends like the trailing tails of moths: the “Immortal Moth” style, a style that remained popular in the Tang dynasty.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Foot binding. Google Images.


One ancient Chinese fashion unlikely to catch on today is foot binding. The practice began between 618-960 AD, the period of the Tang dynasty and increased in popularity, reaching its peak during the Song dynasty of 960-1297 AD. The fashion is believed to have started with a court dancer named Yao Niang who bound her feet to make them appear small and elegant. It quickly spread to the wives and daughters of the aristocracy, and with time, to the middle and even lower classes.

Ideally, feet were bound while a girl’s bones were still malleable, between the ages of 5 and 7. The feet were first soaked in hot water to relax them, and then the four small foes folded over and bound down using cotton bandages. Meanwhile, the footbinder pushed the ball of the foot and the heel together. The result was a half-moon shape, which had to be continually bound for the rest of the girl’s life.

A foot-bound woman could not move properly, taking only tiny, swaying steps. This lack of mobility impeded both independence and ability to work. The restrictive nature of the practice has led cultural historians such as Dorothy Ko to speculate that footbinding was not just about beauty but female repression. Ko believes that Chinese men wished to enhance their masculinity by restricting their women. Diminishing the size of women’s feet- and therefore their ability to live full lives was just one way. Women became complicit in the fashion, binding their daughters’ feet, so they were not disadvantaged in the marriage market.

The shoes worn by foot-bound women were known as Lotus shoes. These were primarily cloth sheaths, supposedly shaped like lotus flowers, one of the Chinese ideals of beauty. Surviving Lotus shoes show that the average size foot after binding was somewhere between 5.25- 5.5 inches long- a little larger than the ideal 3 inches. The shoes were pretty, elegant and of little use for anything except to cover the reality of the foot within them. For if bound feet were perceived beautiful with the lotus shoes on, without them, they were quite the opposite.

Shape aside; foot binding had severe health consequences. Uncut toenails could grow into the flesh, causing infections. In some cases, the toes fell off due to lack of circulation. Bound feet also caused hip and spinal problems. However, it was not until 1928 that the National Government of China declared foot binding harmful to feminine health and the practice was not banned outright until 1949.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908) with long fingernails and nail guards. Google Images

Long Finger Nails

Along with the Egyptians, the Chinese were one of the first cultures to perfect nail art. Chinese Nail polish was colored with vegetable dyes and flowers, mixed with egg whites, beeswax, and gum Arabic, which helped fix the color in place. From around 600 BC, gold and silver were favorite colors, but by the Ming dynasty of the fifteenth century, favorite shades included red and black- or the color of the ruling imperial house, often embellished with gold dust.

Another advantage of Chinese nail polish was it protected the nails. The strengthening properties of the mixture proved useful because, from the Ming dynasty onwards, excessively long fingernails were in vogue amongst the upper classes. By the time of the Qing dynasty, which lasted from the seventeenth until the twentieth century, these nails could reach 8-10 inches long.

The fashion for excessive nail growth was primarily a statement of status as it was impossible to grow nails so long and undertake any manual labor. Unfortunately, such long nails meant the wearer of them could not do anything much at all. It would undoubtedly have been positively dangerous to have attempted any intimate body care. Therefore, anyone with such long nails would have relied upon servants to wash, dress and feed them, to prevent them doing themselves an injury- or breaking a nail.

To counteract the inconvenience of a full set of long claws, it became fashionable for the Manchu women of the Qing dynasty to cultivate just one or two talons on their hands. These nails were shaped and styled so that they looked elegant rather than unwieldy and from the nineteenth century were often protected with nail guards made of gold or silver and studded with jewels.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Onaguro- the Japanese practice of teeth blackening. Google Images.

The Color of Teeth

Fashions regarding teeth across the globe seem to have gone from one extreme to another-literally! Today, a gleaming, snowy white smile is preferred, however in the past; it was acceptable- even attractive- to have black teeth in certain cultures.

For the Romans, a bright smile was all the rage. However, if your teeth weren’t white enough naturally, you could always bleach them. “Egnatius, because he has snow-white teeth, smiles all the time,” grumbled the poet, Catullus, spitefully about a Spanish acquaintance. However, this sparkling smile was by no means natural. “The fact that your teeth are so polished,” Catullus continued,” just shows you’re the more full of piss.” This barbed remark was a reference to the fact that, like many other Romans, Egnatius bleached his teeth with urine. The Romans recognized that the ammonia in urine was useful in removing stains. It was already used to wash clothes which is why fulleries collected it, leaving barrels on the pavement for the public to use if they needed to relieve themselves. Presumably, those wanting to use it to clean their teeth supplied their own.

Meanwhile, across the globe and several centuries later, Japan was taking quite the opposite view of teeth. Up until the nineteenth century, the practice of Onaguro the tradition of dying teeth black was widespread amongst the Japanese aristocracy. At their coming of age, upper-class girls would have their teeth blackened with a concoction called fushiko powder. This mixture was made from ground gallnut, acetic acid, and iron. It resulted in a shiny black lacquer that coated the teeth that the Japanese regarded as highly attractive.

However, onaguro’s attraction did not just lie in its appearance. For it also had health benefits. It prevented tooth decay, cavities, and periodontitis by providing a protective layer over the teeth and gums. However, the practice was banned by the Japanese government in the 1870s as part of a move to modernize nineteenth-century Japan.

Black teeth were equally in vogue in Elizabethan England- but not for health reasons. The increased diversity of foodstuffs available through trade introduced sugar to Elizabethan high society – and how they loved it! Sugar banquets became a favorite elite pastime. An unfortunate byproduct of this new love affair, however, was increased tooth decay. However, since only the very wealthy could afford sugar, blackened teeth became a way of announcing your status. Some people with perfectly healthy teeth would even darken theirs artificially to make it appear they could afford to dine on sugar daily.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Maria Gunning, Countess of Coventry by Hugh Douglas Hamilton (Courtauld Institute of Art, London.) Google Images

A Pale and Interesting Complexion

Up until the early twentieth century, pale skin was much desired by European ladies of standing. White skin was a status symbol; it told the world that you did not have to labor out of doors. Instead, you could stay indoors and let others do the hard work for you.

Merely staying out of the sun did not always endower skin with the right degree of transparency- primarily because skin tones vary so much. So if a lady’s natural skin tone wasn’t pale enough, she needed to look for something to augment it. Some women resorted to leeches to drain them of blood for that ‘pale and interesting’ look. However, most fashionable ladies turned to face paint, which they brushed onto their face, neck, and cleavage to give the desired alabaster sheen.

Ceruse was the most common form of white face paint. Not only did it lend an alabaster whiteness to the completion but it also hid any skin blemishes. This concealing property was one of the reasons ceruse was so favored by Elizabeth I, as a bout of smallpox in 1562 had marred the Queen’s complexion.

This fashionable white foundation was made from finely ground white lead powder mixed with vinegar. The mixture combined to form a smooth, luminous paint. From the Renaissance onwards, the addition of a mercury illuminator intensified ceruse, giving a silvery sheen to the skin and increasing the cosmetic’s coverage.

However, ceruse was also highly toxic. The lead base ate into the skin, causing eruptions that in their turn blemished the face- so encouraging ladies to use yet more to cover up. Persistent use could also cost the wearer their life. Georgian society beauty, Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry died at the age of just 27 because of her love of cosmetics. Feted by society for her beauty, she would not give up face paint despite her husband’s disapproval. She died on September 30, 1760, from blood poisoning brought about by its prolonged use.

Despite the apparent dangers, ceruse remained in use for several centuries. Fortunately, in the 1920s, the spell of pale skin was broken, for a time at least, when Coco Channel made the tan fashionable.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Edwardian ‘S’ shaped corset. Google Images

The Corset

Up until the sixteenth century, there was no need for women to change their body shape to suit fashion. Clothes were shaped practically, to satisfy the dimensions of the individual- not the other way around. However, in the sixteenth century, the first corsets were designed to help ladies achieve the raised bosom and cylindrical torso that had become the fashion.

These early corsets were essentially bodices stiffened with buckram. They were not designed to change the body shape; they merely acted as a ‘board’ between the body and the gown. However, by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reeds and bones were being added to corsets, making them adjustable. By this time, the garment was designed to mold the body to suit the gown. The corsets of this period primarily pushed up and bolstered the bosom without attempting to restrict the waist too much. Tabs spread over the hips, sparing the abdomen from constriction.

However, in the nineteenth century, corsets took a nasty turn. The emphasis shifted from the chest to the waist – with the aim to make this as small as possible. Boning became heavy with the average corset consisting of between sixty to one hundred whalebones. Whereas earlier corsets gave a certain amount of support to the body, even helping posture and the back, Victorian corsets were instead restricted. They made it hard to eat and breathe and were dangerous as well as uncomfortable.

By the late nineteenth century, moves were afoot against the corset. The Rational Dress Movement attempted to promote more comfortable clothing styles that did not put fashion above health. Medical opinions of the day backed them. In 1890 and 1892, The Lancet published two articles denouncing the dangers of corsets. X-ray evidence followed in 1908, with pictures showing the effects of ‘overlacing’ (the practice of pulling the corset too tight to achieve a tiny waist). The day of the extreme corset was over and by the 1920s corsets had fallen out of fashion.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Georgian Lady. Google Images

The Dangers of Big Hair

Wigs and hairpieces have been a feature of western European fashion since the Renaissance and remained so today. However, seldom were wigs more elaborate, unpleasant, and downright dangerous than in the eighteenth century. Simply put, a Georgian lady’s hair had to be ‘big.’ Up until 1760, most ladies were content with a modest, egg-shaped dome of hair. This dome was created by curling the hair and then piling it over pads or wireframes to create height and volume. If the natural hair was insufficient, false hair- often from horses- was used as a supplement.

However, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire took wigs to a whole new level- literally. Not content with a modest amount of elevation, the young Duchess pioneered an entirely new look. Her hair towered up to three-foot above her head, adorned with accessories such as stuffed birds, waxed fruit- and even model ships! Not to be outdone, other English society ladies followed suit and a new fashion craze was born.

However, such substantial hairstyles were not without their problems. Firstly, there was the question of practicality. Because of the time, it took to style it, not to mention the cost, the hairstyles had to last for weeks. This complication meant that ladies had to sleep upright to preserve their hairstyles. Even the simple business of traveling in a carriage was troublesome, as most could not accommodate women’s crowning glories. This problem meant fashion-conscious female passengers often had to sit on the floor!

Then there was the issue of hygiene. Not being able to brush let alone wash the hair for weeks at a time meant that head lice infested the head. So these itchy hairstyles needed another accessory – the scratching rod. The rod was used to poke into the deepest recesses of the hair to provide some relief from the discomfort.

But irritation aside, these prodigious hairstyles were a health hazard. The society papers of the time were full of tragic tales of often fatal misadventures involving a lady’s hair and fire. However, in July 1778, ‘The Morning Standard’ had an extreme case to report. Lightning struck a young lady sheltering from a storm in St James Park. According to the paper, her hair was “erected to an enormous height, and consequently stuck full of long wire pins: unfortunately, these acted as conductors and set her headdress on fire by attracting the lightning.”

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
The gelled hair of an Egyptian mummy. Google Images

Hair Gel Egyptian Style

If you think that hair gel is a modern invention, you are wrong. A Recent investigation of mummies by a team from the KNH Centre of Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester in the UK has proven that ancient Egyptians were using a fat-based hair gel over two thousand years ago.

The mummies in question come from a Greco Roman cemetery in the Dakhleh Oasis of the western Egyptian desert and are between 3500-2300 years old. A sample group of eighteen male and female individuals aged between 4-58 were selected. Some of the sample groups had been deliberately mummified in traditional Egyptian style while others were natural mummies. These mummies were people from a lower social stratum of Egyptian society who could not afford to be artificially preserved after death but were naturally preserved by desiccation in the arid desert conditions.

Of the eighteen, nine were found to have their hair coated in a fatty substance. These include natural as well as embalmed mummies. Based on this, the team concluded that the material on their hair was not part of the embalming process. Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry showed that the substance contained palmitic and stearic acid. Although these compounds are also found in plants, the Manchester team believes they came from animals.

The hairstyles of the mummies were well preserved and very elaborate. Both natural and artificial female mummies sported carefully curled hair that held its style remarkably well. Curls were either long coils or short curls plastered onto the scalp. In both instances, the fatty substance seems to have stuck them in place. Likewise, the male mummies sported short, slicked-back hair- again held in place by the ‘hair gel.’ Whether plant or animal-based, this ancient hair gel was not just an elite fashion aid; Egyptians of all social classes used it.

Looks that Kill: 11 Impossible Beauty Standards from History
Vincent Czerny: The Surgeon who carried out the first Breast Argumentation. Google Images

Early Breast Enhancements

Breasts have always been a significant part of fashion, and every age has tried to make the most of them. At various times, small or large breasts have been in vogue, their shape either concealed or enhanced by garments. However, until the late nineteenth century, no one could increase the actual size of the breasts themselves- despite the best efforts of women and doctors.

Initial attempts to increase breast size were mild enough. Women were recommended to rub unguents and oils into the chests several times a day to promote growth. These rubs could be special ‘growth serums’ or else just plain coconut or olive oil. The results were not a spectacular success.

Then, 120 years ago, the first successful surgical breast enhancement was carried out. A Bohemian/German surgeon called Vincenz Czerny. Czerny was called upon to rebuild the breast of a 41-year-old singer who had lost part of her breast to a tumor. Czerny was lucky as the woman provided the implant material from her own body. She had a benign, fatty tumor on the right half of her lower back. Czerny was able to remove this and use it to rebuild the breast.

The success of Czerny’s surgery started a spate of attempted breast enhancements. The problem was, not everyone had handy spare tissue that surgeons could use as fillers. So, experiments began with many weird and wonderful alternatives. Not all were surgical. In the 1890s attempts were made to inject breasts with paraffin, a fad that quickly died out when doctors realized the paraffin leaked into the rest of the body.

In France in the early 1900s, women desperate to increase their breast size but not so keen on an operation or dubious injection began to experiment with large suction cups, which they fixed to the breasts to firm them up. The theory was, the cups ‘showered ‘ the breasts with cold water, causing the fibers of the mammary glands to contract, firming and lifting the breasts.

The suction cup was no great success either. So surgeons continued valiantly searching for a satisfactory artificial filler they could implant during surgery that would not be rejected by the body. Between the turn of the twentieth century and the 1960s, scientists experimented with some weird and wonderful implants such as glass and ivory balls, sponges and even ox cartilage. Finally, in 1961, a solution was found when the first successful silicon breast implant took place.

Some Sources For Further Reading:

Greek Reporter – Would You Be Considered Beautiful in Ancient Greece?

Bustle – The Ideal Eyebrows In Ancient History

CNN – Work, not sex? The real reason Chinese women bound their feet