9 Beauty Trends From History: The Weird, The Gross, And The Dangerous

by Olivia Harrison

Throughout history, both women and men have done some pretty outrageous things to adhere to the beauty standards of their day, and let’s face it, that definitely hasn’t changed. Today, we’re still bleaching our teeth, lying in tanning beds, straightening or curling our hair, and pushing up our breasts with all sorts of contraptions. Beauty will always be something we chase, and it’s not always a bad thing. Make-up and hair dye and fingernail polish can be a lot of fun, as long as you don’t take it too seriously.

Here are nine totally weird, gross, and somewhat dangerous beauty trends from history. As you read these historical rules of beauty, try to remember the wise words of Tina Fey, “Always remember the most important rule of beauty, which is: who cares?” 

1. Tooth inlays and skull elongation in Ancient Maya civilization

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You may have a personal beauty icon or fashion role model. A lot of us do. (In case you’re curious, I think one of mine might be Zooey Deschanel.) Well, the Ancient Mayans also took beauty queues from an icon of their own, the Maize God. They went to some crazy, drastic and dangerous lengths to achieve the look. Two practices: skull elongation and tooth inlays. According to Extreme Makeover by Mary Miller, the ancient Mayans pressed and bound their skulls into a variety of shapes, which reflected an individual’s place in society. To get your skull into the right shape, you had to start early. About 4 or 5 days after birth, a baby was stretched out on a bed and his or her head was placed between two boards, one at the back and one at the front. The boards were then pressed together and fastened to achieve a look like this:


Tooth inlaying was a slightly less horrifying practice; sort of an ancient precursor to the modern-day grill, if you will. Ancient Mayans of all social classes filed their teeth in decorative patterns. Holes were drilled into the teeth to hold inlays of jade, pyrite, hematite, or turquoise. However, jade inlays were usually reserved for social elites. 



2. Uni-brows in Ancient Greece

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In ancient Greece, women were all about that brow game. They often left their eyebrows untouched as a sign of purity. However, in order to achieve this “pure” look, women who didn’t have dark or full eyebrows would darken them with black powder. According to The Eyebrow by Robyn Cosio, the unibrow was also prized in ancient Greece as a sign of intelligence and great beauty in women, who, if they didn’t come by it naturally, closed the gap with kohl or lampblack. When powder wasn’t enough, they took rather drastic measures and wore false brows made of goat’s hair and used tree resin to make them stick.

3. Portuguese Urine Mouthwash in Ancient Rome
ancient romans

Most of us would like to have a mouth full of pearly whites, but I would venture a guess that very few of us would go to the disgusting lengths that the ancient Romans did. Wealthy Romans, especially women, decided the best way to whiten their teeth was through rinsing their mouth with urine. Okay, yes, that’s gross and bizarre, but that’s not even the weirdest part. They weren’t content using just any urine; the urine had to come straight from the bladders of Portuguese people. Portuguese urine was believed to be the strongest in the world, so jars of urine were shipped in from Portugal for wealthy Roman ladies to use on their teeth, and the product was so popular that Nero had to place a tax on it. The Portuguese part seems completely insane, but the urine part of it wasn’t actually all that crazy. The ammonia in urine acted as an effective disinfection, and urine continued to be used as an active ingredient in mouthwash until at least the 18th century.

4. Bleeding in 6th century Europe

theodora byzantine empress

In America nowadays, a lot of people covet a beautiful tan, but for most of history, the opposite was true. Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, ladies wanted super-duper pale skin because tanned skin was associated with outdoor labor. Pale skin meant you were affluent and could just hang out inside all day. The pale look was popular for many hundreds of years, but it was achieved by many different means throughout time. One of the weirdest and most dangerous methods was popular in the 6th century. During this time, women would often bleed themselves with leeches to achieve a pale complexion. This brings new meaning to the phrase, “beauty is pain.”

5. Teeth blackening in Japan

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Today, we’re all about those pearly whites in America and any one of us would be sure to suffer severe embarrassment if we had something black in our teeth, but for hundreds of years, that was a coveted look. Ohaguro was a custom of dyeing one’s teeth black. It was most popular in Japan and is believed to have started around 200 AD. The main ingredient in the lacquer was a dark-brown solution made by dissolving iron filings in vinegar. It wasn’t all about the look, however. Coating the teeth with this liquid actually helped prevent tooth decay. The dye had to be applied once a day or once every few days. Since it was popular for so hundreds of years, the practice changed functions. In the Sengoku period (1467-1603), daughters of military commanders around 8 to 10 years of age would have their teeth dyed as a mark of their coming of age. After the Edo period (1868), only men in the imperial family and aristocrats blackened their teeth. Due to the odor and labor required for the process, ohaguro was only carried out by married women, unmarried women who were older than 18, prostitutes, and geisha. For rural people, teeth blackening was only done for special occasions like weddings and funerals. On February 5, 1870, the Japanese government banned the practice of ohaguro, and the process gradually became obsolete. 

6. Hairline plucking in the medieval England

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Women in medieval England took the opposite approach to beauty from the ancient Romans. They were all about the “no hair, don’t care” life motto. To achieve this look, ladies took to plucking away at their hairlines to emphasize a high, round forehead. Ouch! According to Women and Girls in the Middle Ages by Kay Eastwood, this beauty ideal of a long and oval face first became popular in the 1300s. In addition to hairline plucking, women also accentuated the look by plucking their eyebrows until they achieved a “barely-there line.” Though this was the trend of the day, the church was not happy about it. It was considered a mortal sin for a woman to pluck hair from her face and head unless she did it to “remedy severe disfigurement or so as not to be looked down on by her husband.”

7. Mouches beauty patches in 16th century Europe

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In the 16th century, patches made from pricey fabrics like silk or velvet and coated in a gum adhesive to hold them in place became a symbol of wealth. Many people at this time suffered from severely damaged skin and scars from both the harmful lead-based cosmetics and diseases like smallpox. The patches were used to cover up the damage. What a smart solution to blemishes. Too bad that’s not a trend now, right?


According to Accessories of Dress: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Katherine Lester and Bess Viola Oerke, the French took the patch trend to a whole new level with a variety of decorative shapes like stars, moons, and crowns. The patches were called mouches, which is French for flies because they literally looked like a fly had perched on your face. Gross. Patching finally fell out of fashion in the late 1700s, as more subtle and natural makeup became popular.

8. Lard wigs in 18th century Europe

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We take a kind of disgusting turn for fashion in 18th century Europe. Most of us are familiar with the GIANT wigs that were popular around then – just think Marie Antoinette – but you likely didn’t know what was behind these hair designs. According to Oh, Yikes!: History’s Grossest, Wackiest Moments by Joy Masoff, the wigs were constructed out of wooden frames that hair was draped over. Now this is where is gets weird: the hair was glued in place on the wood frame with a paste made from lard. Though the lard worked incredibly well at keeping the wig’s shape, there was a major drawback. The lard actually attracted rats. Rats would often nest inside the hairpieces while they were not being worn. Fun fact!: this is where the term “rat’s nest” came from. To combat this issues “wig cages” were invented to keep rats away while the wearer was sleeping. Smart! (Side note: if you google “wig cages,” you will mostly get pictures of Nicolas Cage’s weird head. You’ve been warned)

9. Rainbow freckles: the newest beauty trend

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So we’ve seen some strange beauty trends throughout history, but now I’m going to bring us back to reality and show you that we still do some crazy-ass shit to our faces and our bodies in the name of “beauty.” According to Seventeen magazine, the newest beauty trend is rainbow freckles. Now this one might not be as dangerous as skull pressing or as disgusting as gargling with urine, but this is still weird and dare I say, unnatural. Seventeen wrote, “Rainbow freckles are here, adding a splash of color to bare faces. Girls are rocking pinks, purple, blue, yellow, and even white and gold spots. To get the look, use a large-pore sponge to ~lightly~ dab on liquid lipsticks in any color you want.” So at the end of the day, this beauty trend is definitely harmless, and I actually think it looks pretty cool. But I bring this modern trend up to show that we aren’t any better or more evolved than the ancient greeks or medieval Europeans. Maybe one day our great-great-granddaughters will look back at our fashion magazines and say to each other, “WTF were they thinking?”

Images via stuffmomnevertoldyoureadingthecaribbeanArchaeology.orgamazonawsnetdnatumblr, tumblrAccessories of Dress: An Illustrated Encyclopedianetdna, instagram

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