10 of History’s Fashion Trends People Were Dying to Follow

If looks could kill is one thing, but what if style itself could be the killer? A look back at history shows how people were dying to be trendy.
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Dressing for success can be expensive. The price for being fashionable has never been cheap, but throughout history humans have gone to great lengths and put their bodies through enormous strain to sport a look that makes them stand out in a crowd. It’s been happening for centuries and continues to this day, although the argument can be made the fashion industry is doing a much better job avoiding things like lead in their makeup and flammable materials in their dresses.

Today, tight-pants syndrome (yes, it’s medical terminology dating back to 1993) seems to pale in comparison to aristocrats in Elizabethan times purposely letting their teeth rot to prove to the huddled masses they were wealthy enough to afford sugar. The corset has been around since the 1500s, although before the start of the 19th century it was more commonly known as a bodice. It was ridiculously uncomfortable and didn’t do those that wore them any favors when it came to not having their abdominal innards crushed. The corset is still around today, with the Kardashian girls singing the garment’s praises for helping to “train” their waists. Corsets still don’t do the wearer’s ribs much good and make breathing difficult, but when you want to look good today you can’t sweat the details…

Fashion trends and history are like the peanut butter and jelly of life. You can’t mention the word trend without dabbling in the past. Every fashion faux pas has some historical relevancy as it shaped the course of its era. Bell bottoms and platform shoes are well-known staples of the 70’s. In addition, you can’t mention the 80’s without having vivid flashbacks of acid washed jeans and hairspray. Fashion is ever changing as consumers are constantly searching for the next big thing. The beauty of this form of art is that it is a wearable form of expression. Individuals don’t have to say what’s on their minds, they wear it. With trend-worthy slogan apparel like Phenomenal Woman or Make America Great Again hats, individuals are making their social and political views very apparent. The connection between appearance and expression is no new concept. In fact, history has its fair share of trends that fashioned perception.

Decayed Teeth

Dental hygiene in the 16th-century was evidently not a topic of concern for trend seekers. The go-to look that combined social status and fashion was none other than black teeth. Sugar was likened to the modern day luxury vehicle. Those who were able to consume sugar regularly were considered wealthy and prosperous. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I was known for her charcoal colored teeth. Others rocked black teeth in an effort to appear well-to-do. Fortunately, the discovery of dental health care options put a quick end to that unfortunate trend. Ironically, rotten teeth today symbolize a very different social standing.

The Bombast

The bombast created a scarecrow effect for those seeking a dramatic look. The 16th century was full of larger than life silhouettes that encompassed the perfect look. In order to achieve the iconic inflated sleeves and enlarged cascading waist, men and women utilized the bombast. This padding was made from cotton or horsehair to stuff articles of clothing.

It was popularized in the 16th century by the elite. Duchess of Parma Margherita Aldobrandini is portrayed wearing the exaggerated pieces held in place by the bombast.

The Codpiece

Image Source: H-stt on Wiki Commons

Men in the early 1500s left little to the imagination with their genital shielding codpieces. This trend initially began as a necessity. The longer, fuller jackets were no longer in style. Now, shorter, more pronounced coats were the articles of choice.

Since the tights men wore only went up to their thighs, this left a large opening where the genitals were. No longer having the security of their long coats to hide their manhood, codpieces were introduced in order to protect a gentleman’s modesty. Later, this statement became less about remaining modest and more about showcasing how well endowed the man was. The codpiece evolved into the modern day jockstrap thus making this trend both uncomfortable and comical.

The S-Bend Corset

In the early 1800s, women sought after the ideal body image by wearing corsets. However, 1901 introduced a rather sharp article of clothing that puts the “bend and snap” to shame. The S-Bend Corset created a pigeon-like figure that cinches the waist and curves the spine. Charles Dana Gibson popularized this trend by his infamous portrayals of female independence.

Prior to the early 1900s, women were seen as docile, lacking an opinion, and submissive. However, 1901 brought about a brand new attitude. Women were socialites and seen as independent. Since Gibson portrayed the women in his illustrations with the S-shaped figures, the corset became a revolutionary symbol of the “new woman.”

The Hobble Skirt

Eight women participate in a hobble skirt race. Starter gun has just been fired by man in straw boater hat. Photograph by Charles Trefts, ca. 1912. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections. N25279..

The Edwardian era was amiss with strange trends that weren’t quite executed properly. Out of those, the hobble skirt may have been the least jaw-dropping physically, but they definitely drew attention. The skirt resembles a mermaid style dress with a cinched seam towards the calves. It gave women the allure of a Coke bottle shape that didn’t sit too well with members of society. During that time, suffrage was abundant and women were restricted from certain garments. In fact, women weren’t allowed to wear hobble skirts in the workplace. By 1915, the transition from tighter, fitting skirts evolved into a layered peasant style.

Bullet Bras

Many associate cone-shaped bras with Madonna. However, this strange trend began after World War II. Believe or not, the cone bra was originally designed to protect women from work accidents. Using military-style structure, the cone bra was described as, ” good taste, anatomical support, and morale” by alleged creator Willson Goggles. The bra then made its way to the social scene, thus depicting femininity in obvious forms. The bullet bra gave the illusion that women were always cold as their nipples were seen protruding out of their shirts. The look drew wavering attention but soon fell out of style.

Perfume Cones

Image Source: Walters Art Museum

The ancient Egyptians set the standard for cosmetics and beauty. Their use of essential oils, makeup, and linen was revered throughout the globe. Even down to modern times, many cosmetic industries implement ancient Egyptian practices into their beauty formula. In ancient drawings of Egyptian life, many are seen wearing cone-like structures on their head. Resembling a crown, these wax headpieces were actually perfumed cones. The intent was for the wax to melt throughout the day and give off a pleasant smell. This was customary during elaborate events as guests wanted to remain memorable for their alluring odor.

Platform Shoes

Image Source: istolethetv on Flickr

The 70’s seems like a wrinkle in time as its relatively close to our modern day. Groovy hipsters dawned platform shoes as means to show off their eclectic style. This trend wasn’t only meant for women of the disco. In fact, men wore the platform shoe with embellished suits and swanky lapels. This trend has been adapted to fit modern fashion as the chunky platform is quite popular amongst fashionistas today.


Popularized by the film, The Great Gatsby, the style of the 20s mixed excitement with elegance as women dressed in the iconic flapper dresses. The embellished string like designs opened the door for fashionable creativity. Layered “flaps” would accentuate the dress so that when dancing, the illusion was remarkable. The social climate of the roaring twenties was just as unique as the flapper dress itself. Women who adorned themselves in the flapper style had a suggestive reputation.

Known for visiting speakeasies, dance clubs, and other risky nightlife venues, this type of women was seen as promiscuous. In addition, they engaged in activities that many women at the time avoided such as riding bikes and consuming alcohol. However, the flapper image symbolizes gender equality and ultimate feminism as women were fighting for equal treatment. Today, flapper dresses are amongst the few historical trends that maintain its fashionable appeal.


1822-1906 italienische Schauspielerin. 1840 Parma, 1850 Wien, Paris, London, Berlin, 1857 Spanien, 1860 Holland,1861 Russland, 1864 Konstantinopel, 1867 USA. Australien.1879 Deutschland 1880 Schweden.

Quite possibly the blueprint for haute couture fashion ruffs easily appeal to those with a flair for the dramatic. In the 16th-century, noblemen and women adorned themselves with extreme collars made of linen. Starch was a newfound resource for English citizens and it was used to keep the obnoxious collars upright.

As the trend began to grown, different materials such as lace, silk, beads, and intricate threading were used as decorative embellishments to the circular neckband. Since this altered the posture of those wearing them, trendsetters utilized these ruffs as a symbol of status. Extreme confidence, wealth, and prominence engulfed their body language. Historical paintings showcase the variations of these collars from men to women.

The beauty of history is that it is rife with culture and almost ridiculous instances. Take notice though, at the unifying factor amongst all the listed trends: social relevance. Clothing is meant to make a statement that is deeper than fabric, accessories, and adornment. Rather, it’s a call for freedom and an ode to hard work. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, fashion is a complex collection of internal views that help to shape the century.