I am reading Catharine Arnold’s wonderful City of Sin: London and it’s Vices. The cover features a plate of William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress. Bearing in mind that Hogarth was a satirist, one should perhaps take his picture with a pinch of salt but I was transfixed and thoroughly amused by the sheer number of fashionable beauty spots the ‘fallen woman’ have plastered to their faces. Instead of continuing with a planned series of South African Ghost stories, I thought I would put together a collection of history’s worst fashion mistakes, according to me.
MANY FAKE BEAUTY SPOTS
According to The Oxford Companion to the Body, beauty spots were terribly fashionable in ancient Rome. Beauty spots were either pencilled in with kohl or glued on in the form of a patch. They were worn on the neck, face or shoulders. They were said to highlight the woman’s delicate skin, but they also served to hide disfiguring scars from smallpox, acne or injury. Early patches were made from black taffeta or red Spanish leather. The beauty spot enjoyed great popularity too in the 17th and 18th centuries. The gentry used patches made from velvet which they stored in beautiful enamelled boxes, while the poorer women used mouse skin to create theirs. With the rise of syphilis, the working girls of Hogarth’s picture must have been very grateful for the patches, which could hide the first signs of the awful disease. Syphilis was treated with mercury which, as a poison, acted much like to day’s chemotherapy. Even if Hogarth’s prostitutes survived syphilis, the rigours of the disease and the treatment would have meant no income for some time. Sad stories aside though, wearing more than one furry beauty spot looks silly.
The codpiece enjoyed its heyday in the 15th and 16th centuries. I thought codpieces started their lives as a useful piece of equipment to protect the family jewels in medieval battle. It appears, however, that I was wrong. Men’s leggings were originally more like chaps than pants. They were made of two separate legs with no crotch covering at all. Linen drawers were worn under them. As shirts rose higher, the need for something sturdier than linen was needed to cover the genital area. All good and well and quite sensible so far, but then in the early 1500s decorative and frankly quite terrifying codpieces became all the rage. Henry VIII can be seen wearing a feathered protuberance in a portrait here and the less said about Moroni’s one above, the better. The longer I look at these, the more I giggle. (I do sometimes think I’m a teenage boy.) I wonder if the moustached codpiece (below right) was worn with any sense of irony or if one swaggered around sure of one’s genital maturity and gravitas. Either way, the codpiece is very very bad fashion.
THE EPIC MOUSTACHE
Mustachioed codpieces lead me rather smartly to my next fashion disaster: The Epic Moustache. Moustaches have enjoyed popularity on and off since men first started shaving. Salvador Dali had a much copied creative one; Magnum PI rocked his manly moustache in the 1980s; rheumy-eyed English gentlemen sported the Imperial moustache which is as much about cheek hair as it is about upper-lip hair; 1970s rock gods were just generally hairy – chest hair, upper-lip hair, flowing locks. And Panayot Hitov must have had a very healthy supply of testosterone to grow the monster pictured above. He was a politician, a revolutionary. He did important things with his life but I’m afraid, I cannot see past all that hair. I imagine becoming quite hypnotised by its movement up and down as he spoke at rallies in Bulgaria in the 1860s. To quote Robert Brockway on Cracked, A moustache is supposed to be a courtesy; it’s there to tell the world “there’s something wrong with my face. Here’s something else to look at, friend.” If there’s nothing wrong with your face, don’t grow one.
THE BIG WIG
It was apparently Louis XIII, who went prematurely bald in 1624, who started the fashion of wearing wigs. In his diary Samuel Pepys agonised over buying his first periwig. He set one of periwigs alight and during an outbreak of plague refused to wear another in case the hair was harvested from the head of a plague victim. Wigs made of human hair were very expensive. For the less wealthy, there were horse or yak hair wigs. The poor couldn’t afford them at all. Wigs were as much fashionable for the sake of it, as for communicating one’s social status. At a time when hygiene was an appallingly neglected virtue, the wigs were riddled with lice and fleas. They were sent off to the hairdresser for cleaning, oiling and powdering while the natural hair was cut short, so perhaps they were less awful than naturally long hair would have been but they must still have been rank. And I know there are those who are mad about party King Charles II but the thought of a long, greasy, smelly wig on first meeting and flea-bitten, red and itchy scalp on midnight assignation fills me with revulsion.
But I suppose we have always done silly things to look beautiful. A 17th century cure for baldness involved rubbing bird droppings on the scalp at night. Ceruse, which contained toxic lead, was used to whiten the complexion. Deadly nightshade was (and is) used in eye drops to dilate the pupils to make them seem more attractive. Medieval fashionistas shaved their eyebrows and their hair from the forehead to the crown. And today, we inject a toxin into our faces to hide wrinkles, we insert saline sacs under our skin in major surgeries, we draw pictures on our bodies in permanent ink, we turn orange in tanning salons. Mmmm…maybe a mouse hair beauty spot isn’t the worst faux pas one could make. Now, where did I put my purple henna?