Stylish deformities: The ways that fashion has flattened, bent, and broken bones.

Skulls and skeletons have influenced fashion for centuries from clothes, to jewelry, to purses.  But fashion has also affected bones by flattening, bending, and even breaking them through skeletal modification.  These artificial deformations were often a mark of social status as well as femininity.  Below are few ways fashion has changed bones from past to present.  Let’s start with the head and move our way down.

Artificial cranial deformation

Photo from Wikipedia of a Proto Nazca deformed skull, c 200-100 BC

Photo from Wikipedia of a Proto Nazca deformed skull, c 200-100 BC

Artificial cranial deformation, also known as head flattening or head binding, is a form of cranial modification in which the frontal and the occipital bones are intentionally flattened and the cranial vault is lengthened using cloth or wood.  Cranial deformation was practiced throughout Europe, Asia, and South America.

Photo from Wikipedia showing deliberate cranial deformity; band visible in photo is used to induce shape change.

Photo from Wikipedia showing deliberate cranial deformity; band visible in photo is used to induce shape change.

People underwent head flattening for many reasons: it was visually appealing, was a sign of status, or because it was believe a certain head shape was good for the child.  The process was started when an infant was newborn all the way up to 6 months old, because this was when the bones are malleable because they are growing and fusing.  The binding could take years until the desired shape was achieved.

The 1600 year old skull recently unearthed in France showing artificial cranial deformity.

The 1600 year old skull recently unearthed in France showing artificial cranial deformity.

Some researchers argue that evidence of head binding can be seen as early as 45,000 BC in Neanderthal skulls from the Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq.  The practice continued throughout history worldwide in skulls from FranceMexicoPeru, and Iraq.  More recently, cranial vault modification has been recorded in Arawe people of New Britain in Papua New Guinea.

Rib cage alteration from corsets

Illustration showing rib cage deformities normal vs. corseted.  Illustration via the Lingerie Addict

Illustration showing rib cage deformities normal vs. corseted. Illustration via The Lingerie Addict

Corsets, or “stays,” became fashionable during the late part of the seventeenth century and were a basic part of a woman’s wardrobe.  The infamous whalebone and metal enforced corsets didn’t come into fashion until the end of the eighteenth century.  The exaggerated tiny waistline didn’t become chic until the nineteenth century, and Victorian women endured extreme discomfort to meet this ideal.

Photo via The New York Daily News of the X-rays from O'Followell's paper.  On the left is the "normal" uncorseted waist.  On the right is a corseted waist where the bent ribs can be seen.

Photo via The New York Daily News of the X-rays from O’Followell’s paper. On the left is the “normal” uncorseted waist. On the right is a corseted waist where the bent ribs can be seen.

In 1908, Dr. Ludovic O’Followell of France published a paper titled Le Corset, in which he documented, with X-rays, bent ribs and displaced organs caused by waist-cinching corsets.  He noted that in the process of trying to achieve this extreme hourglass silhouette women had bent ribs, compressed organs against the spine and shifted other organs down into the lower abdomen.  Dr. O’Followell’s goal was not to eradicate corsets, but to encourage a less severe design.  He succeeded to some degree because corset manufacturers started experimenting with more flexible materials.  But the metal enforced corsets weren’t eliminated until World War I when the metal was needed for the war effort.

Photo via Tumblr Rib cage showing bent bones caused by corsets.  19th century London.  Hunterian Collection, Royal College of Surgeons, London.

Photo via Tumblr Rib cage showing bent bones caused by corsets. 19th century London. Hunterian Collection, Royal College of Surgeons, London.

Corsets are still used today to achieve incredibly small waist-lines.  Cathie Jung is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as having the smallest waist, which measures 15 inches corseted, and 21 inches un-corseted.

Foot bone modifications

Photo via  Wikipedia.  On the left is a bound foot.  On the right is a bound foot that is bandaged.

Photo via Wikipedia. On the left is a bound foot. On the right is a bound foot that is bandaged.

Foot binding is the custom of binding the feet of young girls so tightly that bones were bent and broken into an ideal length of 3 inches. The first recorded binding occurred during the Five Dynasties and Ten States period in the 10th century, and continued for about the next thousand years.

The first recorded example of foot binding occurred during the reign of Li Yu, who ruled one region of China between 961-975 AD.  According to this story, the emperor fell in love with a concubine, Yao Niang, who built a gilded stage in the shape of a lotus flower.  Yao Niang bound her feet to look like the new moon and performed a “lotus dance.”  By the 12th century foot binding had become so widespread that every girl who wanted to marry had to have her feet bound.

X-ray via Wikipedia showing the bones of bound feet.

X-ray via Wikipedia showing the bones of bound feet.

The process of foot-binding started when a girl was between four and six years old and involved bending her toes underneath the soles of her feet.  To keep the toes in place, the girl’s family used long ribbons to wrap the feet all the way to the ankle.  The bones of the feet were rebroken and bent as they grew for the next 2 to 3 years, at which point they were bound for the rest of the girl’s life.

The practice started to fall out of favor when Christian missionaries arrived in China, and was officially banned in 1912.  Though the practice continued to be performed in secret in some remote places.

Photo via NPR of Zhou Guizhen (born 1921), who underwent foot binding after it was outlawed.

Photo via NPR of Zhou Guizhen (born 1921) pictured in 2007, who underwent foot binding after it was outlawed.  Click here to see full-size picture.

Though certainly not one the same scale of pain, many women today undergo bunionplasty or surgical bunion removal, and  ‘stiletto surgery’ where toes are shortened to make wearing heels more comfortable.  Not to mention the discomfort that happens when the bones of the foot have to sometimes shift to fit in these beautiful torture, as seen in the below scan.

Similar

Stylish Deformities – Dental Edition



Categories: Archaeology, History

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73 replies

  1. I also note that skin is constantly bombed with extreme rites. Tats, piercing, bone through the nose, and ear lobes disfigured. What the hell is wrong with us that we do these things? This is beauty than I believe ugly should be the new in.

  2. Mindblowing, especially the artificial cranial deformation freaked me out. Not sure I understand how they survived it. Thanks for an interesting read 🙂

  3. um…. I don’t think this is the truth…. “The practice started to fall out of favor when Christian missionaries arrived in China, and was officially banned in 1912. ” My grandma had that when she was young. she was born in the 30’s and her feet didn’t got “free” by Christian people… It’s banned by law from the government…

    I am not defending for the government … just not feel comfortable about giving all the credit to a religion which was not very influential in China during that time.

    • Perhaps as time went by the people of China started changing from influences such as religions of the west being a contribution to the reason why foot binding was banned. The Chinese people have such an intellectual history and culture that the decision was a fashion that had “gone out of style” as the generations change, as fashion is always looking towards the future. Younger generations almost always rebel against the old regimes.

  4. Enjoyed this blog. Many thanks. Was thinking too about those groupings in Africa, apologies for not remembering where, with the elongated necks done by lots of rings around them. Or the plates put into lower lips to protrude right out. Saw
    in Sebastian Delgado exhibition.

    • I’ve seen photos of women in Burma who undergo neck elongation as well. Extreme body modification is always fascinating.

      • Talking about my personal experience, I have a cartilage piercing (left ear), and industrial piercing also in my ear cartilage (right one), and 1 tattoo… still looking for another tattoo though… xD and I did it because I like it a lot, but still… even if I like it… it doesn’t mean that I would dare to do everything I see… like I love big tattoos… like almost entire back… but I wouldn’t dare xD…
        I think it’s fascinating because of the “what a hell” are we capable to do to ourselves in the name of “beauty”, “fitting in the society that we are in”, or whatever mambo jambo we are willing to call it…

  5. I can’t even look at the foot binding, and this might be the only time I say thank goodness for the war effort. Fashion — aargh. Congrats on fresh press.

  6. Ow. That is all I can say. Great post.:)

  7. Indeed, Ow.

    If high-heeled shoes go out of style in my lifetime, I’ll have nothing left to gleefully ignore. Wait a minute, forgot about nail polish. And underwire. And Spanx. And Botox. And Brazilian waxes. Okay, I’m set.

    On your mark…get set…AVOID!

  8. Reblogged this on timeandspace and commented:
    The terror

  9. interesting…

    I had no idea people could have surgery on their feet to be more comfortable with stilettos….wow, the lengths some people will go for vanity…

  10. Excellent post and a grand example of our sufferings for fashion. High heels deform the feet, and put pressure on the knees , and eventually the spine .. And I ain’t am not even going to mention anything about breast implants.

  11. This is good. And I’m pretty sure the mustache is a deformity of the upper lip.

  12. This is sad and lovely at the same time. I don’t know how to feel.

  13. I find the bound foot deformity the hardest to look at.. I read a VERY good novel about life in 19th century China and how they bound the feet.. it was an eye opener..

  14. wow thats crazy! you found a lot of great info too

  15. Reblogged this on gingerblokeblog and commented:
    Instead today, people inject “fillers” into their faces in order to hide the signs of ageing, or have implants to make themselves more sexually attractive. The damage to their bodies is no less than what we have done to ourselves in the past.

  16. This makes me reconsider wearing heels! Gross but fascinating!

  17. Reblogged this on Your Blog Coach and commented:
    What we do to our bodies …

  18. Reblogged on “Your Blog Coach”

  19. Today there you can actually have implants instead of real muscles!

  20. We do crazy things for fashion!

  21. omg that is so gross lol but I can’t look away!

  22. it is amazing what humans do to themselves in the name of beauty.

  23. Wow, this is such an interesting piece; the photos and illustrations are quiet scary… It’s true, people go to great lengths for fashion — something I, personally, can not do.

  24. I like to think I won’t let American men bind my feet. Won’t see me in uncomfortable shoes period. Can barely keep a bra on. :)kttalks.com ktskindwords.com

  25. I m no doctor but I don’t get how craneal binding doesn’t affect the brain. Stylish?status? Looks kind of funny to me

  26. Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Very interesting

  27. Reblogged this on King and commented:
    Standard of Beauty

  28. Everyone always wants to be the freak/runt/misfit gosh

  29. While I do have a bit of ink, I don’t think I could be so dedicated to fashion that I would rearrange by bones! Thanks for this article!

  30. I have to admit, I was mind blown with the cranial deformation. To think people went to the extremity just to have a status. I can only imagine what the poor children in that age must have felt, especially with the foot binding. =(

  31. It was very informative. Most people would know about these cases but this compilation is very informative and shows that the reason was definitely on beautifying however painful.

  32. thanks for the amazing piece , I really think society has a big roll to play in the matter , if this was the past I shudder to think what the future may hold .

  33. Society can mess you up! Binding feet… So bizarre!

  34. really interesting, thank you for this post!

  35. Very thought provoking post- thanks for sharing all of this !

  36. wow! very educative blog. thank you.

  37. WOW! Thanks for this, was interesting albeit somewhat sickening, especially the foot binding.

  38. Reblogged this on Wine goes best with a good book and commented:
    This is all so crazy! The corsets surprised me the most, I knew about all the others, but didn’t think about how original corsets acted to re-shape the body. It makes sense though, that’s not a natural shape. I’ll take spanx over one of those any day!

  39. it’s amazing what people do for beauty. It’s truly in the eye of the behoder

  40. Reblogged this on The Joy of Health Nutrition and Beauty and commented:
    As a Chiropractor I found this Fascinating, who says bones cannot be moved?

  41. absolutely fascinating! Particularly the corseting section.

  42. Great piece and great info. Some of the photos within I use when I teach my A&P class

  43. Women wore girdles in the 1950’s. Not as extreme as corsets, which caused deformities that caused women problems in childbirth. Stilettos are painful but not to the extent of footbinding. Yet the basic problem underlying these practices is women’s self-perceptions and societal demands that women fit into a certain look.

  44. Enjoyed the article! So thankful I have choice in this day and age.

  45. Have you guys noticed how there aren’t any of these done to men only? It’s almost always the women – who are forced to do it. With the foot binding it was done to them from a young age and they couldn’t get married if they didn’t do it, now if you don’t wear high-heels, makeup and uncomfortable tight clothing then people decide you’re ugly and therefore not worth talking to… And probably still have difficulty getting married.

    Why are women always forced into these things – told that they’re worthless if they’re not beautiful (hence anorexia)?
    Feminism still has a long way to go…
    Also, why is a person only said to have worth if they do what a man traditionally does? Why can’t a woman also be valued if she does the important (more so than making money) job of raising kids?
    Now we get kids being put into childcare centres where people “raise” them who don’t really know them and could never love them as much as their parents do…

  46. It’s crazy that people think it’s just in today’s society people are image conscious just goes to show it’s been around for years. Interesting read.

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