14 of the most bizarre beauty trends throughout history

By Harriet Piercy

Published Apr 21, 2022 at 09:33 AM

Reading time: 5 minutes

Modern beauty standards are often unachievable and born out of toxic ideals, there’s no denying that. More often than not, it’s impossible to really keep up with what the next ‘miracle’ anti-this or anti-that might be. One would assume that this is thanks to modern-day living and the rise of social media trends, but actually, considering the funky stuff we’re willing to slap on our faces today, it seems we’ve always been prone to follow peculiar beauty rituals. In fact, you will not believe what people have done in the past in the name of beauty. Because cultures differ in what is deemed ‘beautiful’, we’ve collected some of the most out-there historic beauty fashions from all over the world. Are you ready for this?

1. Painting veins on the breasts of British women

Cleavage styles have changed a whole lot throughout time—from pushed up and busty to strapped back and incognito to the more recent trend of boob contouring—but back in the 17th century, veins were in. At the time, breasts were considered a prominent feature that women should aim to display, but not in any way.

The ashen, paleness of skin that was seen among the wealthy or aristocratic gangs was a trait that women from all classes were aspiring to highlight in their décolleté. But because not all wealthy women were born as pale as they wanted to be, they heavily powdered their bosoms, and then, yes—they literally painted bluish veins onto their skins to make them look a little more translucent to the eye.

2. The unibrow of the Greeks

Eyebrows have always been in the limelight, I suppose that’s because they are smack dab in the full frontal of our face for all to see, but either way, the hairy things have really been through a lot thanks to us. In ancient Greece, a woman’s unibrow was considered to be a sure sign of beauty, because it meant that a woman was intelligent and pure. As for those who weren’t blessed with the bushier hair trait, they would simply fill in the gaps along the brow with the help of pigments.

3. Long nails in China

Like the British, Asians had their own way of showing off social status. Long nails were for those ladies and gentlemen of leisure who didn’t have to lift a finger of their own for work (at the time, what was considered as ‘work’ included simple things like bathing themselves, dressing or even eating). On average, Chinese aristocrats grew their nails up to 25 centimetres long. They took it very seriously and went as far as to have special nail guards to protect them from their everyday lives. Oh, and sometimes these guards were made of gold, just to, you know, one up their neighbouring wealthy friends. One of the first cultures to perfect nail art? I’d argue that yes, it was.

4. Japanese women dyed their teeth black

When you think of sparkly clean teeth, you probably think of Colgate ads and blindingly white teeth. Well, from as early as the third century, the Japanese thought differently about the portrayal of mouth hygiene. The ancient custom is called ‘ohaguro’, the blackening of one’s teeth. First put in place to represent a boy or girl’s coming of age status, pitch-black objects were also regarded as beautiful at the time, so it was only natural for people to want to adopt some of this beauty themselves. The practice was done by aristocrats and nobles, and then transitioned to wealthy married women (although not exclusively), as even now some of the most prominent representatives of the black teeth trend are geishas.

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5. Short teeth in the Renaissance

To follow along with teeth for one more point, the Renaissance period made serious waves into what was considered to be beautiful for centuries to come, until even now. A standardly ‘beautiful’ woman would apparently need to have long legs and a narrow waist with wide, voluptuous childbearing hips. However, the Renaissance also thought that short teeth were attractive too. Some even went as far as to shave them down to a respectable size.

6. Tiny feet in China

There once was a phenomenon known as the ‘Golden Lotus’, which was the practice of bandaging up the feet of girls from a very young age in order to distort the growth of their bones. The heel became bent and the toes grew downwards—allowing their feet to be considered tiny. The most desirable bride would have a three-inch foot. The beauty trend was banned for obvious painful sounding reasons in 1912.

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7. Elongated skull of the Maya

The Maya tribes lived in Central America for centuries and are one of the many Precolumbian native people of Mesoamerica. Mayan people elongated their skulls around the tenth century. They did it by tying a board or specialised tool to the skull of their infants, as the bone is soft and malleable at that age. If they had one of these more egg-shaped and oval heads, they were destined to occupy a higher ranking position within society.

8. High forehead in the Renaissance

Just to continue the long head conversation—the Renaissance had similar ideas (among many others). To meet the beauty standards of that time women either would shave off or pluck the hair from their hairline to create a larger forehead for themselves. They didn’t just leave it at the hairline though, naturally, the eyebrow hair slipped off too, just to make sure nothing got in the way of a big forehead of course.

9. Genital piercing in the Victorian era

Genital piercing is no recent trend or cultural movement, it dates way back. One would usually think of top hats, elegant dresses side by side with sleek tuxedos when they think of the Victorian era—but under those sashes of silk laid piercings galore. It was considered fashionable. Wealthy women pierced their nips and sometimes even chained them together. Men too joined in, supposedly to make their tight trousers more comfortable—this was called the ‘Prince Albert’, after Prince Albert obviously, who invented a piercing to hide the size of his large penis under his clothes. What a gentleman!

10. Urine mouthwash in Rome and urine shampoo in South America

In ancient Rome, women would use urine as a mouthwash to make their breath smell fresh, they would brush their teeth with the stuff too. Technically, this makes small sense as urine contains ammonia, which is a natural cleaning agent. The Romans discovered that Portuguese pee in particular was rather good, it was so sought after that Emperor Nero even placed a tax on it.

In South America, the Incas used urine as a form of anti-dandruff shampoo because of the urea (metabolised and converted in the liver to ammonia) in urine. They would allow their urine to ferment for over a week and then use it to coat their scalps.

11. The Divorce Corset of the 19th century

The corset, which first appeared in the 16th century, is one of the most famous examples of body modification, designed for the sole purpose of squeezing in the waist size and lifting the breasts. It can only be imagined as uncomfortable. The trend was pushed further by the 19th century as the corsets evolved into structures that separated women’s breasts from each other, instead of the tightly compacted cleavage of the past. Naming function, the ‘Divorce Corset’ was born, and in turn, bosoms pushed to the side.

12. British women in WWII with painted nylon stockings

In 1941, Britain introduced clothes rationing to conserve resources. Nylon stockings were one of the first unnecessary fashions to go, but women weren’t ready to give up the trend entirely so went to the lengths of painting their stockings on with gravy brownings (made from caramel, molasses and spices and used for giving gravies in England an appetising brown colour). Some women even drew a black line down the back of their legs to make it look like the seam of tights.

13. Suntanning, now and then

In the mid-1920s a bronzed and suntanned complexion became popular after designer Coco Chanel got a little sunburnt after holidaying on her yacht on the French Riviera. The suntan then became a status symbol for a person who could afford sunny vacations and travel during winter—or a leisurely life with time to not work but sit and enjoy the sunshine. This is another trend that hasn’t exactly fizzled out—just look at today’s sunbed usage (practically fast and intense burns).

14. Menstrual period blood facemasks

Proponents claim that the menstrual blood of women nourishes the skin with all of the properties naturally contained in blood, such as zinc and magnesium. People are quite literally, no joke, collecting their blood on the first day of their periods to lather onto their faces. So if you’re one to scoff at the ridiculous beauty trends of the past, just have a little look around you, it’s all still happening.

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