5 Historical Fashion Trends That Were Totally Fatal

Humans do a lot of really strange things in order to be appealing to other humans. From foot binding to high heels to piercings, implants, and plastic surgery, there’s just about nothing we wouldn’t do to appear more attractive. These historical fashion trends weren’t just painful or even harmful, though. They were downright fatal.

1. Corsets

We’ve all heard of the infamous corset. The corsets of history, however, were a good deal more painful than the corsets we know today. They were often made of whalebone or even steel, and were cinched so tightly that women couldn’t breathe, eat, or even hardly move. Corset “safety” was unheard of, and so women wore these for hours on end, eventually permanently reshaping their waists and damaging and displacing their internal organs. Too much excitement in a corset could lead to internal bleeding, broken ribs, and even suffocation.

2. Petticoats

While petticoats themselves were pretty benign, the materials used to make them were extremely flammable. Many women actually died while wearing corsets because they got too close to an open flame – say, a candle or a fireplace. Their corsets burst into flame, and they either died on the spot or died a few days later from their burns. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife fell victim to a petticoat fire. They wrote: “While seated at her library table, making seals for the entertainment of her two youngest children, a match or piece of lighted paper caught her dress, and she was in a moment enveloped in flames.”


3. Elizabethan Makeup

During the Elizabethan Era, it was very fashionable to have unnaturally pale skin. Pale skin supposedly signified wealth, since it was assumed that if you had pale skin, you probably didn’t spend a lot of time working outside.

To get the palest skin possible, Elizabethan courtiers (and Queen Elizabeth herself!) used lead paint and sometimes chalk. They slathered themselves in the stuff like it was the best brand of foundation money could buy. It’s little wonder, then, that the average lifespan of an Elizabethan person was only about 42 years!

4. Stiff Collars

For centuries, it was very fashionable for men and women alike to wear stiff, ruffled collars. We have no idea why. Usually, these were a somewhat harmless if not impractical fashion trend. However, when the collar was worn too tightly, this fashion trend turned murderous. Historical accounts exist of people who, after nodding off to sleep while wearing one of these, were suffocated by their stiff collars. According to one writer, they were often called “father killers” for this deathly phenomenon.

5. 19th Century Hats

No, the hats themselves weren’t fatal, but the methods used to make them were. Ever heard the phrase, ‘mad as a hatter’? It actually comes from 18th and 19th century hatmakers. Many hats made in the 19th century were composed largely of felt. During the 19th century, you made felt with processes that involved mercury. Yup. Many hatters developed mercury poisoning, which leads to – you guessed it – madness. Specifically, tremors, pathological shyness and irritability, and eventually certain death.