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 960-1297AD. 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.