Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History

Peter Baxter - June 30, 2018

In this list we are going to cross historical and geographic divides to offer up some of the most bizarre human fixations with fashion. The human species, while slavishly dedicated to the pursuit of individuality, has nonetheless, throughout history, followed the herd with unwavering dedication when it comes to fashion. Every society in one way or another identifies itself with some unique expression of fashion or personal appearance. In the age of globalization, however, you have to dig deeper to find the individual peculiarities of human style. Sadly, the sharp lines of individual culture have become so blurred that we all tend to dress the same, and look the same.

In ancient times, however – sometimes not even ancient at all – things were different. Societies and cultures were immediately identifiable by the manner and style with which they presented themselves to the world. Invariably this was intended to send a message, be it a warning or an invitation, be it passive or aggressive, and one could usually get a sense of the worldview of any particular race by how they looked. Some are bizarre, others effete, and yet others ridiculously over-cultivated. Here are ten examples of how crazy it could get.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Hard to mistake what this item of male fashion is intended to enhance. Wikipedia/The Medievalist/YouTube

Codpieces, adding a little extra

One of the most famous manly men of European history was Henry the VIII, whose six wives dutifully came and went according to the whims of his sexual appetite. In between, no doubt, numerous concubines and courtesans filled the idle hours. To celebrate these many conquests, Henry loved to be portrayed with his hands on his hips, his legs akimbo and his package wrapped in a codpiece. This was to make sure that the world, and history, could appreciate how well endowed he was. Most historians tend to agree that Henry died of something other than syphilis, although the rumor persists, and those that live by the sword…

The original use of a codpiece was as a component of plated armor, to protect that vital organ on the field of battle. However, as armor became a fashion accoutrement of the aristocracy, there was always a temptation to add an inch or two to impress the girls, and of course the serfs, with the virility of the ruling classes.

The word ‘Cod’ comes form the old English for ‘Scruton’, and piece, of course, is self-explanatory. According to Wikipedia, as a fashion accessory, the style began as an outward growth from the triangular section linking the two separate legs of a pair of hose, intended to conceal the genitals. As time progressed, these became padded, with a view, then, to enhancing rather than concealing. The rest, of course, is history.

The codpiece fell out of use more or less as heavy armor ceased to be used either as battlefield or ceremonial couture. Interestingly, however, the style reappeared in the 1970s when the New York R&B band Cameo featured front-man Larry Blackmon wearing a scarlet plastic codpiece. Later it slipped into usage in Heavy metal costume, most notably Rob Halford of the band Judas Priest, and Axel Rose, who wore a codpiece during the ‘Appetite for Destruction’ tour, while Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull added to the Medieval flavor of his stage performance with a large and suggestive version of that much-loved accessory.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Powdered Wigs, when men were men. Mental Floss

Powdered wigs, the acme of Rococo fashion

Wigs are now, as they always have been, in particular in the case of men, a means of disguising hair loss. Baldness in the 15th and 16th centuries, however, also carried the stigma of disease. Syphilis was rampant throughout this period of European history, and aside from the sores, rashes and blindness, hair loss was an obvious, and difficult to disguise symptom. Hirsuteness, therefore, became symbolic of robust health, and no doubt of virility, and as with codpieces, when an item became associated with virility, more is good, and the bigger the better.

Powdered wigs, however, are also symptomatic of the excesses of European aristocratic society at that time, which was extremely excessive. This was reflected not only in human couture, but also in the beautiful, but nonetheless extravagantly ornate architecture and art of the Baroque and Rococo periods. It was, however, in the often ridiculously flamboyant fashion of the age that it all came to a head. King Louis XIV, who commissioned the magnificent Palace of Versailles, set the ball rolling with his appearance in public in a series of flamboyant wigs, worn, of course, to disguise his premature hair loss. Four years later, English King Charles II followed suit, and began sitting for regular portraiture in a similarly extravagant wig, worn for much the same reason.

Powdered wigs were simply an extension of this early trend, and the powder was nothing more than a device to keep the tresses looking fresh and clean, and no doubt smelling better. This, however, was also the point at which wigs stopped pretending they were real hair, and began to glorify in the magnificence and sheer absurdity of volume. By the mid-18th century, thankfully, things were quieting down, and while wigs were still required wearing for men of substance and breeding, they tended to be less ostentatious and more practical. By the dawn of the Victorian era, they had disappeared almost entirely, with the exception perhaps of that most traditional of institutions, the courts of law. To this day, barristers and high court judges in Britain and most Commonwealth countries still wear the legal wig in combination with a white ruff and the red gown. That particular tradition looks like it is here to stay.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Taming the curves, the feminine ideal of the 20s. Medical Aesthetic

Breast Flattening

There is very little in human history quite as capricious and changeable as fashion. While ample cleavage is something to be proud of today, and a huge industry thrives on catering to that, less was more in the 1920s, and a no less thriving industry offered women various devices to achieve that effect.

The ideal female image of the 1920s was the tall, angular, gazelle-like creature whose dress hung on a uniformity of frame that almost no woman could really achieve. To help, however, the fashion industry of the time produced various constricting ‘brassiere and bandeau’ to help tame an unruly cleavage.

This follows a long tradition of body modification in pursuit of beauty that is, of course, alive and well today. In Europe and America, the process pf disciplining an amble bust line was relatively benign, but in many other parts of the world, in west and equatorial Africa for example, was, and still is considerably more punishing.

Like female genital mutilation, ‘breast ironing’ and ‘breast binding’ are practices steeped in history and tradition, with no real value attached to them, but nonetheless defended robustly by the practicing society, and ironically, almost always by women.

The practice, known as breast ironing, survives today mostly in West Africa, and specifically in Cameroon. The process involves the use of heated objects, like stones, metal plates and heated shingle of wood to press and massage the breasts of pubescent girls, in an effort to inhibit the growth of their breast. Obviously this in an anachronistic practice, long proved to have no benefits at all, and in fact proven to lead to long-term health issues in the future. When asked why they persist in this practice, most mothers struggle to offer a coherent answer. Certainly it is not a process of beautification, because mutilated breast are not that attractive, and so one can only conclude that it is just the blind adherence to tradition.

Women’s rights activists both in West Africa and in Europe, where these practices have been transported with mass immigration, are actively working to discredit the practice. However, as is the case of female genital mutilation, sometimes these bizarre traditions, conceived centuries in the past, retain their cultural significance, and are kept alive simply for that reason.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Chinese foot binding, hard to find the beauty in it. All That is Interesting

Chinese Foot Binding

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and traditionally, the Chinese ideal of feminine beauty is of the petite, demure woman, theatrically decorated and utterly helpless. Somehow, from this notion emerged the practice of foot-binding, the ideal result of which is a tiny, hoof-like foot that adds to the general presentation of a delicate woman.

Beauty certainly is in the eye of the beholder. The origin of the practice is, of course, obscure, but the most popular parable associated with it is that of the ‘Lotus Dancer’, a favorite consort of the Southern Qi Emperor Xiao Baojuan (483-501) who danced barefoot on a floor decorated with lotus motifs. The king remarked that ‘lotus springs from her every step’. This was a reference to the Buddhist legend of ‘Padmavati’, from beneath whose feet the lotus springs. There is some anecdotal support for this in the fact that the ideal of bound feet is the ‘Lotus foot’ or ‘Lotus feet’.

There were numerous variations of achieving the essential result, but basically, at an age between four and nine years old, the process would start. Normally it would begin in winter, when the feet would be numbed by cold, and therefore the initial pain would be less extreme. First, each foot would be soaked in a combination of warm animal blood and herbs, presumably to soften the foot, after which the toenails were cut back as far as possible to avoid future ingrowth, and all of the likely problems that would accrue from that. After that, the feet were tightly bound by cotton bandages soaked in the same mixture. The toes were curled against the sole of the foot, and pressed with significant force until the toes broke. The broken toes were then pressed firmly against the sole of the foot until eventually the arch broke.

The whole process was meticulous. Each time the feet were unbound to be inspected, they were cleaned, the nails trimmed and rebound to continue the process. The whole macabre business went on until the desired outcome was achieved, by which time all natural feeling had been lost in the foot.

The practice was apparently pursued simply for erotic appeal of small feet. Qing Dynasty sex manuals, for example, list forty-eight different ways of playing with women’s bound feet. Usually the feet remained encased in tiny ‘lotus’ shoes, because, while this was an ideal of beauty, there really was nothing beautiful about a mutilated foot when uncovered. The lotus walk, the tiny steps and swaying gait, was also regarded as erotic.

The practice began to slip into decline in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, mainly through the efforts of social reformers and missionaries, although it remained widespread until the early 20th century. In 1912 it was banned, and thereafter actively discouraged. As China progressed towards the Cultural Revolution, it was seen as evidence of Chinese retrogression and backwardness.

Recent research has concluded that women with bound feet were not kept simply as sex trophies, although many were, but also they were debilitated so that that could be encouraged to sit and work at tedious jobs like weaving or sewing for long periods.

Either way, there are still Chinese women, born in the 1930s and 1940s, whose feet were bound, and so evidence of this strange and persistent practice can still be seen today.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
The ‘koteka’ penis gourd, less is more. Pininterest

‘Koteka’, the Papuan Penis Gourd

As a variation on the codpiece, the ‘penis gourd’ is an item of clothing, and often the only one worn by men of the highland tribes of Papua New Guinea. They are typically made from a particular species of dried gourd, Lagenaria siceraria, for those who must know. Usually the long, funnel-like growth is worn over the penis, and secured by one loop of twine wrapped around the scrotum and another around the waist. Generally each tribe or clan, or even family, describe their particular Koteka, and the decorations added to it, differently, and so therefore the device has an identifying function too.

Added to that, if one searches the name, and studies the images that come up, it is clear that there is a strong symbolism implied, and it hardly takes a genius to conclude that ‘big’ and ‘long’ are the preferred styles.

We will not get into that. Obviously early anthropologists, when they noticed the phenomenon, were immediately interested, but the missionaries who also arrived on the island at the same time were scandalized. The anthropologists began immediately to catalogue and study the use of Koteka, and the letter set to work trying to stamp their use out. The native Papuans, however, would not give them up. They clung with particular tenacity to their cultural tradition, as they do to this day.

By the 1970s, the practice was still widespread enough that a reformist-minded government launched ‘Operation Penis Gourd’ to try and introduce western styles of dress to the traditional tribes. Some social force was applied in attempting to achieve this, but even that did not succeed in noticeably reducing the scope of the practice. All that could be mandated as a requirement of law was that a minimum of shorts and a buttoned shirt be worn in a court of law, or in any public building.

Some South American native tribes, mainly Amazonian, have also been reported to wear a style of penis gourd, and very rarely, in tropical Africa. In both of these regions, however, the practice has disappeared, although some compromise to modern life has taken place in Papua New Guinea, the Koteka is still very much around, and in use on a day to day basis.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Tattooing, an ancient tradition. Pininterest.

Tattoos, from ancient to modern

Most of what has featured so far on this list deals with matters of beauty and eroticism, and, of course, body art certainly plays a role in that. However, body modification has also traditionally had much to do with implying ferocity, strength and courage in warfare.

Where the tradition of tattooing begins is so buried in the soil of time and tradition that it is pointless trying to dig it up. Evidence of tattooing can be found on mainly female mummies unearthed in various parts of Egypt, the earliest dating back to 2,000 BCE. However, Otzi the Ice Man was also tattooed, and his origins have been placed at about 3345 BCE. Yet other examples, at least according to the Smithsonian, have been dug up in ancient cemeteries in the Nile Valley, potentially dating back as far as 15,000 BCE.

There is also strong evidence that ancient Britons were tattooed, and in fact the Romans named one northern tribe the ‘Picts’, or the ‘Painted People’. The practice has also been observed in ancient Roman tradition, where tattoos were used largely as mark of ownership on slaves. Pre-Columbian cultures of Peru and Chile also show evidence of a tradition of tattoo, and, of course, there is the story of Olive Oatman, held captive by the Mohave Indians during the late 19th century, and returned after five years bearing the traditional facial tattoos of the Mohave.

In the 19th century, as British naval exploration began to touch every corner of the world, the tattoo began its long association with various navies – think anchors, the Jolly Roger and ‘I love Doris’. The word ‘Tattoo’ evolved from the Tahitian word ‘Tatu’, and it was on the leisurely sojourns on these beautiful islands the British seaman picked up the tradition. From there is was taken up by the aristocracy, particularly after it was revealed that the English King Edward VII bore a tattoo, as did his heir King George V.

Perhaps the most recognizable and dramatic tattoos of the ancient world are the Polynesian and Maori tattoos, in particular the facial tattoos associated with the warrior casts of both of these societies. These are some of the most beautifully rendered and artfully conceived tattoos anywhere, and the essence of Maori tattoo design permeates very much the modern tattoo movement, competing perhaps with the perennial Celtic motifs, a race also, incidentally, with a strong tradition of tattooing.

The traditional name for Maori Tattooing is ‘Ta moko’, and there is nothing random about it. Like any totem or tribal symbol, the various designs evolved over generations, each bearing a specific reference to the wearers family and tribal affiliations, and their place within the wider social structure. Body tattoos, or course, where more decorative and erotic. The entire experience was something of a rite of passage, because if modern tattooing smarts, then traditional Maori tattooing, using tradition methods, hurts a whole lot.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Artificial cranial deformation, an ancient but very odd stye of beautification. Dr. Rita Louise/Pininterest

Artificial cranial deformation

In 1925, while plowing a field in the southern Australian state of Victoria, a landowner unearthed a human skull of obviously unusual proportions. Initially, researchers were convinced that a previously undiscovered link in the human evolutionary chain had been discovered. This theory, however, was soon discredited. The archaeological record was being steadily populated by other discoveries around the world, in particular in Africa, and this skull simply did not conform to what was currently known. It became clear that Australia was not the cradle of mankind, but Africa, and after a while the Australian skull was archived as a curiosity, and largely forgotten. Then, in 1948, a second, similar specimen was unearthed, and then a third, and the debate was once again revived.

To cut a long story short, what was eventually concluded was that some sort of deliberate modification of the skull had taken place to produce these unusual proportions. Th physiology of this is simply that infant skulls are soft and loosely joined in order to accommodated uneven growth. Fusion does not begin to occur until after one year birth, so modifying the shape of the skull soon after birth is quite easy

In the meanwhile, similarly perplexing finds were discovered in other parts of the world, and certain patterns began to emerge. The elongation of the skull appears to have been a mark of nobility, while a skull flattened at forehead was a sign of a humbler lineage. As anthropologists and explorers began to penetrate the wilds of Papua New Guinea, for the first time saw the practice at work, and explanation in this case appears to have been that the modification of an infant’s skull would somehow enhance its intelligence.

The begged question then become how was this effect achieved, and the answer again is simply in the pliability of an infant’s skull. Even the practice of carrying a child on the mother’s back, by a simple fact of gravity, can flatten the top of an infant’s skull, so it is certainly easy to imagine how it could be achieved with creative binding. To accomplish the flattening effect of the forehead, a flat piece of wood was added.

It might surprise readers to know that cranial molding still goes on today where you would least expect it. In facts born with congenital skull deformations where helmets to produce the same basic effect, although in most cases the processes is intended to rectify a deformation, not to create one.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Neck Elongation. Who ever thought of that? canacopegdl.com

Neck Elongation

Early European traders setting up shop along the east coast of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal, in what was then Siam and the region of Burma, were astonished to see the occasional highland woman attending market sporting a long collar of brass rings. In most cases, this simply looked uncomfortable, but one or two women had necks so elongated by the practice that their necks were no longer able to support their heads.

These were the Kayan women of southeastern Myanmar, who have since become most associated with this bizarre, but fascinating cultural practice. As Europeans began to probe deeper into the unknown portions of the world, however, they found many other cultures and societies also practicing a variation of this type of body modification, in particular in parts of sub-equatorial Africa. For example, the amaNdebele women of South Africa wear a less extreme version of the neck rings, which are typically a sign of wealth rather than body modification, although the gradual elongation is certainly a by-product.

It is, however, among the Kayan women of Myanmar where the practice is not only most widespread, but also most extreme. The way it works is not that different from artificial skull deformation, insofar as girls start the process at around the age of five, and coils are thereafter added incrementally. The physical effect of this is not so much to stretch the neck as to push the collarbone down, and in extreme cases, to malform the rib-cage, shifting both to a point some forty-five degrees out of normal placement. This causes a forward-leaning posture and a natural weakening of the muscles of the neck.

Apart from weakening the entire muscle structure of the neck and upper torso, the whole business is just uncomfortable and impractical, and to suffer that for a lifetime seems an enormously high price to pay for beauty. Nonetheless, the practice is still very much alive and well in Myanmar, and the Kayan and Padaung communities have since become something of a tourist attraction.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Scarification, a painful way of looking good. Pininterest


Scarification belongs in the same basic category as tattooing, insofar as beautification is achieved by controlled injury. As a method, scarification probably predates tattooing as a form of body art, and arguably, the most dramatic examples of it can be found in Africa. There the practice is simply to cut a millimeter or so into the subcutaneous later, and rub ashes into the wound. It is this that creates the signature raised elevation of the wound, and when arranged in a pattern, the desired effect is achieved.

Less dramatic examples of facial scarring can amount to no more than a slice or two on the cheek, but there are hundreds of recorded examples of body scarification that would bring water to your eyes just to look at them.

What purpose did all of this serve? Well, we are back to the simple principle of beauty and eroticism, combined with tribal and clan identification, as well as rites of passage and initiation. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once described the body as a surface waiting for the imprint of culture. In fact, anthropologists have scratched their heads over the matter of ‘controlled injury’ body art ever since it first surfaced as a specific field of study. Why, for example, is the practice so prevalent in Africa, and the answer, it would seem, has to do with the fact that scars are more visible on darker skin than inked tattoos. Then there is the fact that the process, which is achieved usually over many sessions, produces endorphins, from which a euphoric state can be achieved. Another reason often cited is traditional healing, and that different variations of the process produce different therapeutic results.

It is generally agreed, though, like breast ironing, that none engaged in the practice could truly say what the reasons and origins of it are, but simply that it is so bound up in history and tradition that generations do it simply because the previous generation did.

It is undeniable, though, that even though the process behind it can be rather hard to deal with, the results certainly can be very compelling.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Tooth filing and sharpening, the painful pursuit of beauty. Pininterest

Teeth Filing

Filing and chipping the front teeth to sharpened points is a body modification practice that is very widespread throughout the world. The tradition was, and in some places still is common in equatorial Africa, Southeast Asia, among the Mayans and associated people and from time to time among the Australian Aborigines.

How and why? Well the how part is quite easy. Usually a sharp instrument, sometimes bespoke and sometimes not, is employed to delicately chip away at the enamel until the desired effect is achieved. Painful and brain jarring at the very least, one can imagine that a few hours of that would send you to bed with a headache and a toothache.

Why is a little different. In some cases, teeth were filed down to a nub in order to reduce the impression of anger and hostility, and in other cases to increase the same effect. The practice was certainly cosmetic, because it offered absolutely no advantage in battle or in the business of hunting, or in eating meat. In fact, the removal of so much essential enamel from the tooth surface simply exposes it to enhance risk of decay and disintegration, and after that, hot and cold sensitivity must be awful.

There has in recent years, with the popularity of body modification, been an upsurge in the business of tooth sharpening, but with the advantage of modern dentistry, the same effect can be achieved without necessarily exposing the inner material of the tooth.

Nonetheless, here we have yet another challenging body modification undertaken for whatever specific reason, and another questionable chapter in the pursuit of ideal beauty.

Embellishment and Mutilation Were Part of the 10 Most Bizarre Fashion Trends in History
Lip Plates, surely one of the oddest trends out there. Scribol/lanka Deepa/Pininterest

Lip Platters

We end this list with what must truly be one of the oddest, most impractical and downright unattractive combinations of body modification and ornamentation. Lip platters, and only question is why?

A lip platter, as the illustration makes clear, is simply the perforation and elongation of either one or both lips, usually the bottom, to the extent that a disc of varying size can be held in place and worn as an ornament. Typically the labret is pierced, and as with neck stretching and skull elongating, by increments, the perforation is expanding by the insertion of ever larger discs or plates. The practice is most widespread in Africa where it is still widely practised, most notably in parts of Ethiopia and the Sahel region.

In most parts of Africa, it is usually accompanied by the removal of the two lower front teeth. The ‘why’ part of this is again confusing, and speculative. Anthropologists have postulated that the more extreme the modification, and the larger and more elaborate the plate, the higher the individual stands in the social hierarchy.

As a general rule of thumb, a girl will have her lip pierced a year or so before marriage, after which a simple wooden peg is inserted, and once healed, the process begins. The girl will craft her own plate, and as the size of the plate increases, so does the intricacy of its ornamentation. The largest lip plate on record was identified in Ethiopia, and it measured 23.4 inches in circumference and was 7.6 inches wide.

The only other region of the world where the practice has been recording is in Amazonia, although in the Pacific Northwest of America, among the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit a similar practice has been observed, usually as a symbol of a woman’s maturity, and not in any way as extreme as those in Africa. In Africa, the practice is confined largely to women, but among Amazon tribes it is strictly a male preserve, usually as a mark of entering the ‘men’s house’.

It also goes without saying that the Modern Primitive movement as adopted this, among many other ancient methods of beautification, so one is just as likely to see a lip plate adorning a youth on the New York Metro as in a tourist village in Ethiopia.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Work, not sex? The real reason Chinese women bound their feet.” CNN. Katy Hunt, May 2017

“Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History.’ Smithsonian. Kate Lineberry, January 2007

“Ta moko – Significance of Māori tattoos.” 100% Pure New Zealand

“Why did early humans reshape their children’s skulls?” BBC. Colin Barras, October 2014

“Teeth-filing as a Mark of Beauty and Belonging in 19th Century Africa.” DianaBuja’s Blog. March 2012