The Null Device
In the recent fashion issue of VICE Magazine, the inimitable Lord Whimsy has an article about bizarre and grotesque fashions from throughout history. While it's not written in the same ornate style as his Affected Provincial's Companion, it is, as one would expect, a veritable wunderkammer of the outré, containing not only the obvious examples (foot-binding, scalping, German duelling scars, the various status arms races among idle aristocrats), but a number of more obscure and peculiar practices:
Some fashions were the result of indifference. A good example of this is the Polish plait, which was a crusty, oily mass of filthy, matted hair. Often as hard as a helmet, it was a tangled mess held together by dried blood, dirt, dead lice, and pus. Generally, Polish plaits were the result of neglect, but they could also be brought on by particularly nasty lice infestations, in which spent eggs would act as a kind of mortar.
High-ranking Italian noblemen of the 14th century took up the fashion of wearing tunics short enough to reveal their testicles. Those who felt insecure about their heft would often wear a leather falsie known as a braquette. It’s doubtful that this was intended to fool anyone. It may have been done for the same reasons female pharaohs wore false beards: It was a symbol of power and potency. Like a crown, but hairier.Wasn't the Scottish sporran originally intended to achieve the same effect?
In many societies, it was (and in some places still is) fashionable to intentionally contort the body into strange shapes. Perhaps the most notable example was the surprisingly widespread practice of head binding, which involved wrapping an infant’s pliable head in a tight cloth or between two boards until it elongated and assumed a conical shape, which was deemed very attractive, as well as a sign of intelligence. The brain would simply adapt to the shape of the skull, so apparently no damage would occur, but it does make one wonder whether changing the shape of the brain case also changed the way that the brain functioned. Did it affect vision? Memory? The ability to think about wide objects?
Some fashions compensated for disfiguring medical conditions. Eighteenth-century Europe was a time of unprecedented artifice in fashion—people in the upper classes were essentially ambulatory theater sets, dripping with props. Makeup was caked on to smooth out their smallpox-ravaged faces. They would even try to smooth out their features from the inside as well: Most people lost their teeth at a shockingly young age, and as a result their cheeks would cave in. To counter this, they used small lumps of cork, called plumpers, which were stuffed into their cheeks. This affected the way they spoke, which soon became fashionable, even among those who still had teeth.Could this be how various accents typically considered to be "posh" or aristocratic came to be? One could imagine, for example, the sorts of rarefiedly aristocratic English accents one only typically hears on stage or in old films having come about as an imitation of wearing bits of cork in one's cheeks.