Fashion's fools

Fashion's fools

Jayne Shrimpton looks at some of the stranger and more frivolous trends in fashion down the ages

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Fashion – a word which knaves and fools may use,
Their knavery and folly to excuse

Charles Churchill, The Rosciad, 1761
Extreme late-Gothic fashions such as ultra-short male gowns and exaggerated poulaine or crackowe shoes
Extreme late-Gothic fashions such as ultra-short male gowns and exaggerated poulaine or crackowe shoes are displayed in Loyset Liédet’s illustration of c.1470

Since the beginning of recorded time, the foibles of fashion have been derided and condemned. In England, early Christian churchmen preaching humility denounced overt sartorial display as sinful and ungodly. St Aldhelm, writing in the early eighth century to the Abbess Hildalid of Barking bemoaned the finery adopted by some of the abbey’s nuns (essentially noblewomen living a secular existence): ‘satin underclothing… scarlet tunics and hoods, sleeves with silk stripes, shoes edged with red fur, hair carefully arranged on the forehead with the curling iron – this is the modern habit.’ He also objected to the fashion-conscious nuns’ floor-length coloured headdresses sewn with long ribbons, fingernails sharpened like talons and love of jewellery and cosmetics.

Three Foolish Virgins
The parable of the Three Foolish Virgins is represented by three figures of fashionably dressed maidens in this sculpture at Magdeburg Cathedral, c.1240
The Habit of an English Gentleman
‘The Habit of an English Gentleman’, late 1640s, mocks the long hair, patched complexion and beribboned doublet and petticoat breeches of a fashionable ‘gallant’

When tailoring advanced in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries, fashionable tendencies such as provocative tight-fitting gowns, excessively long pointed shoes, ostentatious jewellery and long hair in men were proclaimed not only immoral, but temptations of the Devil himself. These modes were also considered unmanly: in Historia Novorum in Anglia, historian and ecclesiastic Eadmer related how by 1100 ‘…it was the fashion for nearly all the young men of the Court to grow their hair long like girls; then with locks well-combed, glancing about them and winking in ungodly fashion, they would daily walk about with delicate steps and mincing gait.’ A little later, in 1135, monk and chronicler Orderic Vitalis preferred to discuss ‘holiness and the miracles performed by saints than… the trifles of fools and frivolous extravagances.’ Throughout the Middle Ages, elite fashions and manners continued to be equated with human folly, vanity and pride.

Taste à La Mode
Vast hooped Georgian skirts and their wearers are ridiculed in ‘Taste à La Mode’, an engraving after L P Boitard, 1745

From the 1400s the Renaissance ushered in more worldly attitudes, access to even greater luxury prompting some startling dress trends like flamboyant slashed doublets and the bizarre tattered, multicoloured clothes adopted and popularised by Landsknecht mercenary soldiers. But those who abandoned plain honest dress, unthinkingly adopting frivolous new fashions, were pronounced foolish and ‘wanton’ by Dr Alexander Barclay in The Ship of Fools (1509). Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, published 1528, agreed that too much glitter and colour made a man look like a jester; he simply would not be taken seriously. Yet dress grew increasingly extravagant, as reflected in the vast ruffs and excessively wide padded trunk hose adopted during the later 1500s. Queen Elizabeth I used magistrates to enforce Acts of Apparel, one man being arrested in 1565 wearing ‘a very monsterous and outraygeous great payre of hose’, that were then displayed ‘in some open place… where they maye aptly be seen and consideryd of the people as an example of extreme folye.’ Public ridicule was considered a fitting punishment for such transgressions.

artificial macaroni hairstyle
This caricature, 1778, pokes fun at artificial macaroni hairstyles and is also a gruesome reminder of the ephemeral nature of fashion, in the face of death

In Stuart England, plays, poems and facetious etiquette books derided the callow young gallants or ‘gulls’ arriving in London who wasted their money on flashy clothes, also ridiculing fashion-obsessed ladies. In Lingua, or the Combat of the Tongue (1607) Thomas Tomkis wrote: ‘…there is such doing with their looking-glasses, pinning, unpinning, setting, unsetting, formings and conformings… such stir with sticks and combs, …busks, bodies, scarfs, necklaces… borders… fans…, ruffs, cuffs, puffs, muffs… and such a calling for fardingales, kirtles, busk points, shoe ties, etc. that seven peddlers shops… will scarce furnish her: A ship is sooner rigged by far than a gentlewoman made ready.’

A Regency dandy’
A Regency ‘dandy’, obsessed with his appearance, employs tight corsetry and extra padding to create the desired fashionable look in this satire, 1819

During the Commonwealth (1649–60) some self-righteous Puritans cut their hair short, leading them to be dubbed ‘roundheads’. Lucy Hutchinson, a Puritan herself, was scornful of the appearance of those whose hair was cropped ‘close round with so many little peaks as was ridiculous to behold.’ Extreme Puritans denounced certain fashions, but any serious attempts to limit finery were unsuccessful: afterwards the Restoration ‘fop’ with his ornate snuff box, long curls, effeminate face patches, beribboned suit, lace sleeve ruffles and vast fur muff became the butt of more humour.

he Graces in a High Wind
‘The Graces in a High Wind’, 1810, by satirical artist James Gillray highlights the revealing, insubstantial nature of neoclassical white muslin gowns

Throughout the 1700s average wages increased and the consumer market widened, fuelling widespread accusations that the working classes were increasingly dressing above their station. Early Georgian taste favoured exuberance and vast hooped skirts inspired ‘A.W.’, to write The Enormous Abomination of the Hoop-Petticoat, 1745, complaining that ‘&hellipwomen are by this prodigious Garment become a perfect publick Nuisance’, criticising ‘…the vast foolish Expence of so much Silk and other costly Materials.’ With women now leading a more public life, their appearance attracted growing censure in print and in graphic imagery during the heyday of the social satire. Caricatures mercilessly mocked the battery of artificial beauty aids used by ageing ladies seeking to disguise the ravages of time, and exaggerated the tall, ‘macaroni’ hairstyles of the 1770s, described by Bluestocking Mrs Delany as ‘waving plumes, preposterous Babylonian heads towering to the sky… more suited to the stage or a masquerade than for either civil or sober societies.’

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Between the 1790s and 1810s dress became simpler, more natural in style, but the fashion for ladies’ lightweight, clinging neoclassical white gowns worn with little underwear prompted accusations of immorality, being blamed too for causing pneumonia. Today we also recognise the enormous economic and human cost of producing the diaphanous white muslin, from the cultivation of raw cotton on slave plantations, through the long hours spent spinning the yarn and weaving the cloth in dangerous mills, to the teams of servants needed to maintain these luxury items.

Another unsettling aspect of fashion that peaked in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was felt hat manufacture. The complex and messy process of transforming raw animal fur into pliable felt for fashionable men’s headwear used uncontrolled quantities of toxic chemicals: in particular, noxious mercury vapours poisoned workers, causing chronic mental disorders, excruciating physical deformities and in some cases death. The familiar phrase ‘Mad as a Hatter’ did not come close to describing the problems experienced by many of those in the trade.

fashion plate, 1863
This fashion plate, 1863, shows gowns in ‘crude’ aniline colours, including toxic arsenic green and ‘Perkin’s mauve’, which caused a bright purplish-red skin rash

By the industrial age, with the expansion of mechanised factories and mass-production of diverse, affordable goods, fashion was accelerating and reaching a wider population. But rapid, unchecked ‘progress’ came at a price, for technological advances now placed the workforce at growing risk, labouring as many did with harmful materials, unprotected, in lethal conditions. For example, scientific research fuelled the development of intense ‘aniline’ (chemical) dyes, used for vibrant new dress fabrics. These lurid hues were not universally admired: in the early 1860s visiting Frenchman Hippolyte Taine criticised the ‘outrageously crude’ colours and ‘want of taste’ among British women, his Notes on England itemising ‘violet dresses, of a really ferocious violet; purple or poppy-red silks, grass-green dresses decorated with flowers, azure blue scarves…’ More seriously, several fashionable Victorian colours threatened the health, even the lives, of makers and wearers of garments, especially vivid shades of green that contained perilously high levels of arsenic.

Punch magazine
Punch magazine, which had a field day with ladies’ fashions, mocked the vast cage crinoline that shaped mid-century dress, in this illustration from October 1858

The Victorian era produced a succession of extreme female styles. As artificial under-structures such as the corset, crinoline and bustle contorted the body, these inspired numerous cartoons in the middle-class satirical magazine Punch. The ungainly cage crinoline frame, worn throughout society, seemed particularly risible, causing not only social embarrassment but also horrific accidents, particularly involving fire. More sinister were reports during the late 1860s and early/mid-1870s when fashionable women’s coiffures used so much false hair, that ‘ordinary’ sales of human hair could not meet demand, prompting a rise in the murder rate of female victims, in some districts.

Celluloid was widely used for men’s shirt cuffs and collars
Celluloid, a highly flammable early plastic developed in the late 1800s, was widely used for men’s shirt cuffs and collars, as seen in this advertisement, c.1890

The 20th century also spawned its fair share of foolish fashions, from the extreme pre-First World War ‘hobble’ skirt that hampered walking, through trailing flapper scarves of the kind that tragically killed dancer Isadora Duncan in 1927, to the towering 1970s platform shoes that caused serious injuries and driving accidents. Today we still use lipstick brands that contain harmful lead, while our desire for cheap mass-produced clothes costs the lives of countless factory and sweatshop workers every year. The love of novelty is a potent force and the global fashion industry generates vast profits for a few. Fashion, it seems, still has the last laugh.

Read Jayne’s latest guides to dating photos in the new print edition, Issue 9, available now – see .

harem pants
Eccentricities in dress still inspired 20th-century humour, like the daring harem pants that were a brief evening fashion, pictured on this postcard, c.1911

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