Friday Five… Outrageous Ancient Fashions

Men's Heels

If you think we’re in an age of extreme fashion with our beards to rival Santa Claus, skirts the size of belts or ears stretched so far you could use it as a basketball hoop, boys that look like girls and girls that look like boys, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Here are five outrageous trends from the past that could even make Lady Gaga look like plain Jane from down the lane…

1. Revealing dresses

Egyptian Dress

The usual dress worn by Egyptian women was a simple sheath dress, a rectangular piece of cloth folded in half and sewn down the side to make a tube with two thin straps. Not too risqué until you look at the pictures. Some show the dress sitting as we would wear a dress today, but in many others they stop just below the bust. Maybe it’s just artistic representation, or maybe Ancient Egyptian women really did let it all hang out.

2. Men in wigs


Shaving is an easy way to disguise the thinning hair and receding hairlines, but it isn’t the only solution. In the past powdered wigs called ‘perukes’ were all the rage. Why? In 1580 syphilis had become the worst epidemic in Europe since the Black Death and the patchy hair loss associated with this disease is one of the main reasons these wigs became so widespread – King Louis XIV of France only added to the craze when he started wearing one. In fact, wig wearing became so popular in the 18th century that the British government taxed wig powder. And men kept wearing their curly counterparts for at least 150 years after the trend began.

3. Men in heels

Men's Heels

Picture walking down the cobbled streets of 17th century England on your way back from a big night at the tavern, hearing the rather heavy footed clip-clapping of a buxom maid who must be trying to catch up with you, turning around and seeing… it’s actually Dave from the house across the road. Yes that’s right, once upon a time men used to wear heels too. Sometimes worn in the past for practicality, such as 16th century Persian soldier horsemen, whose high heels allowed them to remain steady in their stirrups while standing and shooting arrows. But at other times, it was all about making a statement. In 17th century, wearing something so impractical proved you were rich enough never to have to work.

4. Doctors in black

Plague Doctor

We’re used to seeing our doctors dressed in that well-recognised symbol of hygiene and medical authority, but it wasn’t so in the 14th century. Black cloaks, canes, red eye pieces and bird-beak masks were standard fare among the Plague doctors. Though the intention was noble (the cloak reduced exposure, the cane for examining things without physical contact, the red eye piece to make them insusceptible to evil and the nose mask stuffed with goodies to keep away their patients’ dreadful smell), it’s genuinely one of the creepiest get-ups we’ve ever seen. If you thought getting your kids to the doctors now was bad enough, imagine if he was wearing this!

5. Parisian poufs

Marie Antoinette

It’s 18th century France and Marie Antoinette is being as extravagant as ever. Big hair is in. And we’re talking BIG. Big enough to make Amy Winehouse’s beehive look limp and lifeless. And it was being adorned with all manner of decorative objects – animals, feathers, jewellery, butterflies and even flowers in mini vases – one craze was even to turn your barnet into a giant sailing ship. But these OTT hairstyles caused some serious problems and number one among them was their size. Reaching up to a foot high, doors had to be heightened, special protective bonnets had to be designed and women often had to either kneel on the floor of their carriages or else stick their heads out of the window so they could fit. The second problem was hygiene. As can be imagined these styles were not the easiest to brush and so personal hygiene went out of the window, if you looked very closely you may even have been able to see a little mice scuttling through. Nice.

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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