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

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

Peter Baxter - June 30, 2018

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