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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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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) 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.


Stylish Deformities – Dental Edition

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