When early nineteenth-century corset fashion shifted from the buxom “Venus ideal” to the slimmer “Diana ideal,” it became popular for women to wear the garment but claim they weren’t. “Actresses would say, ‘I don’t need to wear a corset,’” historian Valerie Steele noted in 2012, “but you look at their photograph and you go, ‘Babe, you are so wearing a corset.’”
A UK fashion student announced plans to harvest the DNA of late couturier Alexander McQueen—extracted from hair used in his 1992 collection “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims”—to develop epidermal material for a line of leather jackets and bags. The lab-grown skin will feature McQueen’s freckles, moles, and tattoos, and be susceptible to sunburn.
The oldest known tattoos belong to Ötzi, a 5,300-year-old mummified corpse who suffered from heart and Lyme disease, colonic whipworms, gallbladder stones, missing ribs, and arthritic joints. His sixty-one tattoos are patches of small charcoal incisions; their proximity to acupuncture points has led researchers to believe they were created for curative purposes.
A French tale from 1615 contains a rare early modern mention of a married woman considering birth control. Her method: pressing a bead of perfume on “that artery that the vulgar calls the pulse” during intercourse. The procedure fails—not due to its own inadequacies, the reader is told, but because the woman, so taken by her activity, neglects to apply the perfume.
Seneca the Younger tells of Hostius Quadra, who installed mirrors in his bedroom to reflect distorted images. “He relished the exaggerated endowment of his own organ as much as if it were real,” Seneca complained. Quadra confirmed: “If I could,” he said, “I’d have that size in the flesh; since I can’t, I’ll feast on the fantasy.”
Jin dynasty general Yuanzi once peeked in on a soothsaying Buddhist nun while she bathed. He watched her carve open her belly, take out her viscera, and cut off her own head. Later, the nun emerged intact. “If you remove or bully the supreme ruler,” she told Yuanzi, “your body should be like that.” The general was disappointed; he had been planning a coup but now reconsidered.
Andean legends tell of pishtacos, bogeymen who steal their victims’ fat. In colonial times they were said to be Franciscan monks who used the fat as church-bell grease or holy oil. By the 1960s they were sometimes represented as workers who used it to lubricate modern factory machinery or airplane engines.
A common belief in antiquity was that bees were born of decaying ox flesh. Virgil instructs in his Georgics to stop up a young bullock’s nostrils and mouth, beat it “to a pulp through the unbroken hide,” shut the carcass in a small room to ferment, and await the bees that will burst out “like a shower pouring from summer clouds.”
A fourteenth-century Egyptian encyclopedia includes a recipe to “tighten the vagina.” One should grind “the scorched skin of a jackal, the scorched hooves of a goat, the scorched hoof of a donkey, scorched thorn apple, a scorched sea crab, scorched polypody, and Persian thyme,” then administer as a suppository. “The woman,” promises the compiler, “becomes like a virgin.”
Athenaeus wrote that fourth-century-BC Greek courtesan Phryne was so beautiful “she used to wear a tunic covering her whole person” because it was “not easy to see her naked.” Once prosecuted for a capital crime, she was about to be declared guilty when the orator pleading her case brought her to the middle of the court and ripped off her tunic. The judges, “so moved by pity,” acquitted her of all charges.
Menstrual taboos persisted in nineteenth-century Europe. In the Rhine it was said that women on their periods turned fermenting wine to vinegar, in France that they were unable to whip up a successful batch of mayonnaise, in Britain that “women should not rub the legs of pork with the brine-pickle at the time they are menstruating, or the hams will go bad.”
“There were very few beauties,” wrote Jane Austen to her sister about a party she attended in 1800. The two Miss Maitlands had “a good deal of nose”; the General, “the gout”; Mrs. Maitland, “the jaundice”; and regarding Susan, Sally, and Miss Debary, Austen was “as civil to them as their bad breath would allow.”