The Strange Origins of 5 Iconic Fashions
Many of the basic fashions we take for granted today were popularized by people who were just a little bit bonkers.
1. The Necktie
The tie can be traced back to Croatian mercenaries at the court of Louis XIV. In order to stand out in the crowded court at Versailles, they wore cravats (from “Croate"). Some Frenchmen thought this look was stylish and adopted it themselves. But it was a Regency dandy named Beau Brummell (above) who really made it compulsory for men to wrap a piece of fabric tightly around their necks, a style which has never died out in the past 200 years.
Brummell was the ultimate fashion icon. If he dressed a certain way, everyone did as well, including the then-Prince of Wales, the future George IV. He took hours to get ready every day and it was considered an honor to be invited to watch him. He cleaned his boots in champagne and introduced hygiene to the upper class with his weird obsession of bathing and brushing his teeth daily. He was probably the first personal stylist, and aristocrats would come to this common man and ask his opinion on what they should wear. But his expertise didn’t come cheap; Brummel once said that if you were very careful with your money, it might be possible to dress appropriately for a year on a mere $160,000.
He also invented most of those complicated neckerchief styles seen in portraits of the period, many of which took numerous servants, yards of cloth, and upwards of an hour to do correctly. Doing this once a day would be bad enough, but a true gentleman would change his tie at least three times a day, and if a new one wasn’t knotted perfectly he would be expected to start over from scratch.
2. The Suit Jacket
One hundred years later there was a new leader of style in London. Queen Victoria's son and heir Albert ("Bertie") wanted to be more involved with her reign and was constantly asking for things to do. Victoria didn’t comply, not liking her son very much and thinking he was kind of stupid, so he had to look for other things to fill his days. At a young age he became the leader of the “fashionable set.”
With nothing else to occupy his mind he became obsessed with appearance—his and everyone else’s. On a cruise to Scotland he asked his servants to dress a little bit more “ethnic” as they got closer, but of course not dressing completely Scottish until they actually landed. He once started a fight with his mistress and refused to talk to her for days because she wore the same dress twice in one week.
From a very young age his looks were influential. If you have a picture of yourself as a child wearing a variation on a sailor suit, you can thank young Bertie (or whoever was dressing him). And the style of creasing trousers down the middle is also credited to the prince.
But one of the most enduring styles he created was completely by accident. Bertie was extremely fat, and one night he either forgot to do up the bottom button of his suit jacket or it popped open because of his girth. All of his friends immediately started wearing their jackets the same way, and to this day that is considered the correct way to wear one.
3. The Bra
Despite the stereotype, no 1970s radical feminist ever told women to burn their bras—but in the 1870s, a radical feminist did tell women to "burn [their] corsets." The binding metal underwear was starting to fall out of favor as they kept women tired and, quite literally, tied up.
Some of the earliest women’s rights campaigners, like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, went after the painful undergarment. An alternative, the bra, developed in various stages by men and women in Europe and America, owes its popularity to women like Phelps who laid the groundwork for the new undergarment by fighting for the end of the old one. Pro-corset/anti-bra crusaders worried that women would start having terrible figures, take up hobbies, do more exercise, and generally be unladylike if their clothing stopped limiting their ability to move.
And, thankfully, they were right. Phelps herself married a man 17 years younger and had a writing career, including turning out a few saucy romantic novels based on Bible stories.
4. The High Heel
While they may be a hindrance these days, heels were originally created for practical reasons. High heels on boots were first worn by men so that their shoes stayed in the stirrups while riding horses into battle. Then women in Italy started wearing huge platform shoes to raise them above the garbage and feces in the streets. While they kept the muck off of their dresses, the platforms, which could be up to a foot high, did make it virtually impossible to walk around unaided. But it was a tiny princess who gave us the high heel as we know it today.
While her exact height is lost to history, we know that Catherine de Medici was short even for her time period. (Centuries of royal inbreeding will do that to you.) And when her marriage was arranged to the French King Henri II in 1547, this became a problem. Her hubby-to-be had a really beautiful, really tall mistress named Diane who he was besotted with, and Catherine wanted to look better than her at the wedding. She couldn't do anything about her looks, but she could do something about her height. She ordered her shoemaker to make an entirely new type of shoe, one that had a platform that was shorter in the front than in the back. This new high heel added inches to her height and allowed her to walk around on her own. But in the end it was all for nothing, as Henri still favored his mistress over his wife until the day he died. (The shoe above is circa the 1760s.)
5. The Bikini
Today’s go-to swimsuit for anyone who wants to show off her body, the bikini has fallen in and out of fashion through history. There is written evidence that women in Ancient Greece wore two-pieces, and the Romans actually memorialized the display of flesh in mosaics. Women during that time period wore them to work out, making the small scraps of cloth surprisingly modest when you consider what male athletes of the time were wearing.
When Pompeii was excavated they in the early 1800s, workers discovered a perfectly preserved statue of Venus wearing only a gold bikini. The King of Naples was so shocked by this find that he had it hidden away in a secret room, where only "mature persons of secure morals" were allowed to view it.
When bathing suits started coming back into fashion for women, even head-to-toe one-pieces were considered scandalous. But by 1913, Carl Janzen had introduced the two-piece. Suits continued to get skimpier, but it wasn’t until 1946 that the bikini as we know it was truly born. Louis Réard bet one of his friends that he could make the tiniest swimsuit in the world. His creation was so risqué that no model would wear it, and he had to hire a stripper to show it off on a beach. Soon people were clamoring for their own bikinis and Réard received over 50,000 fan letters, mostly from men.