If Looks Could Kill: 19 Most Dangerous Fashion and Beauty Trends Throughout History

Murder, madness, and maladie, fashion has a surprisingly deadly history. Humans have always had a penchant for all things beautiful, to the extent that the pursuit of perfection, either through accident, design, or intent, has had some pretty extreme consequences.

From arsenic dresses to lethal corsets, let’s delve into the rich history of some of the deadliest fashion fads of all time. 

Mad Hatters

Man in 18th century embroidered suit, in cocked hat with feathers
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It wasn’t just their creative genius that made them mad. The phrase “mad as a hatter” is commonly associated with the mental and physical side effects of mercury poisoning. 

In the 18th and 19th centuries, hatmakers commonly used mercury to treat fur used in making hats. The poisoning frequently caused debilitating symptoms like tremors, leading to severe health issues and even death.

Not So Rosey Blush

Portrait of beautiful young woman applying blush
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The Romans love the healthy look of rosy cheeks and a sunkissed complexion. However, the appearance of health came at a high price. Using a combination of vegetable dyes, poppies, and lead-infused mixtures like cinnabar provided a sought-after glow but ultimately led to severe health issues. 

The presence of lead and mercury caused severe skin problems and brain and kidney damage. Ultimately, the pursuit of a rosy complexion turned out to be catastrophic for their health. Instead of looking rosey as roses, many of them found themselves buried beneath them.

Crushing Corsets

Luxurious retro corset
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It’s no surprise that crushing your torso would have an impact on your health. The Victorian corset craze, whilst incredibly fashionable, proved to be dangerously deadly. The health issues were so concerning that in 1874, a list linked 97 diseases to corsets, including mental health issues like hysteria and melancholy. 

These tightly laced and sharp bonings were known to cause severe constipation, indigestion, asphyxiation, and in extreme cases, even internal bleeding due to excess pressure on the lungs. In the case of Mary Halliday in 1903, her autopsy found that the corset steel had penetrated her heart. 

Flaming Petticoats

Historical costumes in Victoria Museum
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The 19th century saw the rise of the crinoline petticoat at the height of high-society fashion. The fabric became responsible for multiple high-profile deaths due to skirt fires, including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife and Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters who suffered fatal burns from their dresses catching fire. 

The trend was so deadly that the New York Times even warned about the dangers, citing an average of three deaths per week from crinoline-related fires.

Poison Ring

retro gold jewelry from the silver ring in the shape of the tree crown and gold earrings
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Throughout history and in myths and fairytales, women have often been depicted using flashy accessories to poison their rivals. Believed to have originated in India and the Far East, these deadly accessories, sometimes called ‘pill boxes’, contained a secretive container. 

In the Middle Ages and Ancient Rome, this sneaky compartment concealed deadly poisons used in suicide and assassination attempts throughout history.  One notable case was Italian noblewoman Lucrezia Borgia, who is rumored to have been an adept master of these rings, using them to dispose of her political opponents.

Muslin Disease

Muslin and silk decorated with embroidery
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In the 18th and 19th centuries, women in France would wear wet muslin gowns to show off their figures and indicate their lack of undergarments. This provocative trend was in part due to France’s Sumptuary Laws, which stated that one’s clothing and accessories could not weigh more than 3.5 kg. At the time, rich fabrics and heavily embroidered clothing were reserved strictly for the upper class. 

Foot Binding

Chinese women's shoes from the foot-binding era
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The ancient practice of foot binding is believed to have affected over a million women. Small feet were a symbol of beauty, grace, and desirability. As a result, young girls were forced to have their feet soaked, bent, and nails removed before being tightly bound to achieve the appearance of small and dainty feet. 

This brutal beauty practice made use of shards of broken tiles inserted in the shoes to encourage the toes to break and fall off. Unsurprisingly, despite being unspeakably painful, open wounds, broken bones, infection, and gangrene were commonplace. Death from septic shock was not unusual, and as a result, the practice was banned in 1912.

Collared Killers

Vintage gentleman's collar box
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The detachable collar was introduced in the 9th century. These stylish and practical accessories allowed men to refresh their outfits by changing the collar instead of the entire shirt. 

However, these stiff collars were nicknamed the ‘father killer’ because of their ability to cut off blood supply to the carotid artery. The collars were responsible for suffocation and even death, as seen in an 1888 obituary that described a man who died after his collar caused asphyxia and apoplexy.

Combustible Costume

Wooden treasure chest with valuables. beads, necklaces and other jewelry
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Imagine if your favorite necklace spontaneously combusted! For those in the late 19th century, this was a real risk. During this period, celluloid was introduced as a cheap plastic alternative to ivory, used in imitation jewelry, combs, and even clothing accessories like collars and cuffs. 

However, it quickly became evident that this cost-effective material was too good to be true. Unfortunately, celluloid is a highly flammable material capable of exploding just from being near heat, resulting in severe injuries and even death. 

Pernicious Pins

Vintage Japanes hair pin in silk kimono woman
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During the Edo Period in Japan, Kanzashi hairpins served not just as ornamental hairstyles but were lethal weapons for protection and assassinations. Similarly, in late 19th and early 20th-century America, hatpins were adopted as discrete and concealable weapons utilized as protection against predatory individuals.

Newspapers often reported incidents of women using pins that were up to a foot long as a lethal weapon, referring to the trend as “The Hatpin Perils.”  

Killer Heels

Retro heels
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If you thought modern-day high heels were precarious, you’d never have survived 15th-century Europe. From the 15th to the 17th century, Europeans wore towering platform shoes called Chopines that reached three feet high. 

These insanely impractical shoes were designed to restrict movement and required walking sticks or escorts to help wearers maintain balance, or else there was a very real risk of breaking your neck! Poor construction of the shoe led to many broken bones and snapped ankles, which at a time when infections could be fatal, led to slow and painful deaths.

Deathly Pale Complexions

Woman wearing blanc de ceruse makeup
Image credit: Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com

Lead-based makeup can be traced back to ancient Greece. Unlike today, looking pale used to be all the rage, and people would go to some pretty deadly extremes, using lead-based products like the Venitian Ceruse to achieve the perfect pasty complexion. 

One of the most notable victims of this crazy trend was Queen Elizabeth I, who used makeup to conceal smallpox scars during the Renaissance. While it improves complexion temporarily, use on the face leads to blistering, peeling, bleeding, and scarring. Lead is notoriously toxic, causing hair loss, inflammation, infertility, and even death with prolonged use. 

Doe-Eyed Death

Fruits of belladonna or banewort or dwale or deadly nightshade – Atropa belladonna - in autumn, Bavaria, Germany, Europa
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In Renaissance Italy, the highly toxic belladonna or ‘deadly nightshade’ plant was used to dilate pupils to create a “doe-eyed” look. The trend spread across Western Europe, causing blurred vision, heart rate increase, and eye irritation from the toxicity. Larger doses lead to more severe issues, from mental disturbances, convulsions, blindness, and ultimately death.  

Radioactive Glow

Radium hazardous chemical in laboratory packaging
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At the start of the 1900s, the search for the perfect healthy glow led to the development of radioactive makeup. The radium-infused products promised consumers a glowing complexion. 

However, given that the products were radioactive, the health effects were severe, leading to issues like anemia, sterility, tooth loss, and even death. Accidentally ingesting the products would result in the painful and slow rotting of their insides. 

Powdered Wigs

Judicial system decision and court order or sentence concept with judge powdered wig,
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This dangerous trend has a bizarre origin story. During the 17th century, syphilis-related hair loss created paranoia among men, and thus the wig-wearing trend began. Starting with King Louis XIV of France, the trend quickly spread across the aristocracy and merchant classes.

However, the issue was that the wigs were severely unhygienic, not to mention, highly flammable. As a result, they were often treated with rancid animal fats and scented flour to deal with lice infestations and the rancid stench. However, this contributed to respiratory issues caused by inhaling loose particles.  

Deadly Dyes

Scheele's green was loaded with copper arsenite
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Deadly dyes have been commonplace throughout history. One of the most potent was the deceptively beautiful and vibrant green dye called “Scheele’s Green,” discovered in 1775. Unfortunately, this gorgeous green was made from arsenic, making it incredibly deadly. 

The pigment was known to cause symptoms like skin irritation, nausea, and headaches, while prolonged exposure led to severe health issues, including death

Modern Maladies

Beauty fashion model girl creative art makeup, over purple, pink and violet air balloons background. Woman face Make-up with gems, pink with gold lips, purple eyeshadows. Widescreen.
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These examples may seem insane, but our obsession with fashion and beauty continues to make us push our bodies to the extreme. Fatal fashion isn’t limited to the past. We seem to continue to develop new trends and styles that threaten our health in the name of beauty. 

Suffocating Skinny Jeans

Woman wearing skinny jeans
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A popular modern trend for men and women is snug-fit skinny jeans, designed to look like a second skin. These may seem stylish and flattering to some, however, they can cause serious health issues, from restricted circulation, numbness, tingling, and shooting pains in the legs. In addition, their tight fit and restrictive material can also result in stomach issues like heartburn and gas and even infertility in men. 

Doctors have warned of the dangers to nerve and muscle damage after a woman in Australia experienced swelling and numbness in her legs, forcing her to be cut out of her jeans.

Bone Smashing

TikTok app
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One of the latest TikTok trends from 2023, this ‘beauty’ practice is as insane as it sounds. The horrific trend encourages young people to smash their faces with blunt objects in an attempt to achieve a chiseled jawline. 

Unsurprisingly, plastic surgeons warn against this unproven practice that can lead to severe injury or irreversible damage. The risks involved include potential airway obstruction, suffocation, blindness, and even nerve damage. 

Fast Fashion

fashionable woman wearing silk scarf
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Fast fashion is undoubtedly the deadliest and most far-reaching fashion trend in history. An enormous, rapidly growing industry that has led to our global consumption of fashion increasing by a sickening 400%. The industry is perhaps the biggest silent killer, responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions contributing to the irreversible effects of climate change.

Fast fashion poses a multi-pronged effect on consumers, workers, and the environment. From pesticide exposure to hazardous chemicals, it has led to reproductive disorders and severe respiratory conditions. In addition, the appalling working conditions and use of child and unpaid labor have contributed to thousands of deaths. For example, in 2013, a factory collapse killed over 1,100 workers, exposing the deadly conditions of the garment industry.

What Would You Do For Beauty?

Confused young woman
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You may be wondering how far you’d go in the pursuit of beauty. Social media sites like TikTok could provide you with the answers to the extremes that the younger generations are going to face. From bone-smashing to skin bleaching or at-home teeth-filling the extremes to which we go, regardless of our health, haven’t changed much over the centuries. 

Looks Can Kill

Cool hipster student
Image Credit: Elena Kharichkina / Shutterstock.com

In the pursuit of beauty, one can easily drop dead. Our obsession with the perfect aesthetic throughout history has meant clothing is more than just frivolous fashion; it’s been both a means of protection and a genuine source of danger. From mercury-laced hats to killer heels, it seems that dressing to kill may be more literal than you once thought.

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