10 of History's Deadliest Fashion and Beauty Trends

Nope to all of this.

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No. 1: Lead Makeup

Queen Elizabeth I: Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's lead?
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In Elizabethan times, women blended white vinegar and lead to make ceruse—a heavy white foundation designed to visually smooth the face (sunscreen wasn't around yet and smallpox ran rampant, so most people were working with some facial scarring and UV ray damage). Washing regularly wasn't exactly a high priority in the late 1500s, so once your ceruse was on it stayed on—and when it started to wear thin, you'd just add another layer. This resulted in a slow poisoning, and in the meantime, women who used lead-based makeup to achieve the era's ghostly-pale look suffered from abdominal pain, dry skin, and hair loss. Queen Elizabeth I, who popularized the trend, may have died from ceruse-related illnesses, although no one knows for sure.

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No. 2: Live Snake Jewelry

Sorry, 2001 VMA's Britney. The Marchesa Casati did it first.

OK, this look never exactly caught on (great news for snakes), but let's all take a minute to appreciate the woman who never stopped trying to make it happen: Marchesa Luisa Casati. The Italian aristocrat-slash-fashion-priestess, who was born to immense wealth in 1881 and died penniless in 1957, frequently accessorized her get-ups with writhing boa constrictors. She was also known for taking her pet cheetahs on midnight walks in Venice's St. Mark's Square, completely nude underneath a fur coat. Her existence was basically a master class in being an eccentric heiress.

No. 3: Radium Face Cream

French cosmetics brand Tho-Radia promised that dewy, radioactive glow.
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After the Curies pioneered radioactivity research in the early 20th century, the world went radium-crazy. In France, England, and America, the substance popped up in face creams and cosmetics that promised to "energize" the skin and reduce wrinkles. That is, until the '20s, when people discovered radium was a toxic, cancer-causing element, and not just a fun ingredient that made things glow.

No. 4: Mad Hatters

Giant, powdered wigs make great head-buffers for poisonous hats.
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The expression "mad as a hatter" was around for at least 30 years before Lewis Carroll popularized it with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, mercury poisoning was an occupational hazard for milliners—the chemical was used in the production of stiff felt hats, and frequent exposure to it often led to "mad hatter disease." Symptoms included tremors, memory loss, and pathological shyness (which didn't seem to be a problem for Alice's Mad Hatter).

No. 5: X-Ray Hair Removal

This is fine. Everything is fine.
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In the early twentieth century, X-ray hair removal was marketed as a perfectly safe, normal aesthetic procedure. Patients were often exposed to X-rays for hours, and while their body hair did fall out, they also suffered from skin thickening, burns, dermatitis, and, years later, cancer.

No. 6: Mega-Platforms (aka Chopines)

16th-century Venetian women could probably run laps in Marc Jacobs's seven-inch platforms. That's because they strolled around in chopines—towering, thick-soled shoes designed to protect the foot from wet, muddy streets. The height of the heels was directly related to the nobility of the woman who wore them, and the fanciest Venetian ladies often balanced on 20-inch platforms (with the help of an attendant to lean on, of course).

No. 7: Arsenic Dyes

This arsenic-dyed dress is still eerily bright after 150 years.
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If Pantone was around in Victorian times, bottle green would have been the color of the era. The only problem? Arsenic was the key ingredient in this particular shade of dye. Since emerald dresses were typically reserved for special occasions, the women who owned them didn't wear them enough to feel any negative health effects. The fabric-dyers and dressmakers who worked on these garments, however, often developed arsenic poisoning over time.

No. 8: Crinoline Fires

That was a close call.

Giant skirts are fun and all, but when your dress is standing three feet away from your body, you can't feel it catch on fire when you graze a candle. During the mid-19th century, when crinolines (or hooped petticoats) had reached peak popularity, death-by-skirt was pretty common. In 1858, the New York Times wrote, "an average of three deaths per week from crinolines in conflagration, ought to startle the most thoughtless of the privileged sex; and to make them, at least, extraordinarily careful in their movements and behavior, if it fails to deter them from adopting a fashion so fraught with peril."

No. 9: Deadly Nightshade Eye Drops


In Renaissance Italy, women dilated their pupils to anime-size with eye drops made from deadly nightshade extract. The look was considered sexy at the time (our pupils sometimes dilate naturally when we're attracted to someone), but the toxic plant caused visual distortion, sensitivity to light, and, in some cases, blindness.

No. 10: Muslin Disease

A good look, but not I'll-risk-pneumonia-good.

We live in a golden age of crop tops and body-con dresses, but 18th- and 19th-century French women had to resort to more drastic measures when they were feeling themselves and wanted to show a little skin. Ladies would pour water over their bodies just before dressing in their muslin gowns, so the thin fabric would cling to them. Predictably, the combination of cold temperatures and damp clothing led to severe cases of pneumonia, and some historians believe the practice was responsible for Paris' 1803 influenza outbreak.

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