By Jim O’Neal
In September 1991, two German hikers were on a glacier in the Italian Alps when they spotted a body protruding from the ice. It was an unusual discovery since glaciers tend to grind up everything in their path. But this body was protected from contact and oxygen (saponification) and the flesh transmuted into a waxy substance called adipocere, similar to soap.
Radiocarbon dating confirmed the body (a male) was 5,000 years old and in this degree of preservation, anthropologists literally had a time-traveler body to study, along with his possessions. His “shoes” were of interest since they were less slippery on ice, less likely to cause blisters and more protective against cold than modern footwear.
At some later time, humans became more concerned about fashion than function. Many times they chose style or pricey alternatives over utility. That is even more true today as we strive to exaggerate our status in curious ways.
Some of the more amusing examples include the magnificent collar ruffs known as piccadills in the 16th century. As they grew larger and larger, they made eating more impossible and necessitated the fashioning of special long-handled spoons so diners could get food to their lips.
When buttons arrived in 1650, people could not get enough of them as they were arrayed in decorative profusion on the backs, collars and sleeves of coats. Relics of this are the pointless buttons on jacket sleeves near the cuff. (While in London, I had bespoke suits made on Savile Row and the tailor was adamant that four buttons and button holes on each sleeve was de rigueur.)
But perhaps the most egregious example was the 150 years of men wearing wigs. Old faithful Samuel Pepys duly recorded his initial apprehension, but then was proud of being in the vanguard of men’s fashion, despite worrying about the plague if human hair was used. In addition to being hot, scratchy and uncomfortable, wigs required weekly maintenance. They were sent to have their buckles (French bouclés, meaning curls) reshaped on heated rollers and possibly baked in an oven (fluxing).
This evolved into a daily snowfall of white powder, primarily from simple flour, and then into colors, followed by scenting and even multi-colors.
When the wheat harvest failed in France in the 1770s, there were riots when starving people learned that flour was being diverted to wigs instead of baked into bread. “Let them eat …?”
And then suddenly wigs went out of style faster than belted polyester suits in the 1970s. Wigmakers petitioned George III to make wig-wearing by men mandatory. The king refused, so it must have been on one of the days he was not “mad” in the literal sense.
Women continued to wear even more extravagant wigs and added elaborate artificial moles (mouches). I predict that someday, high-heeled shoes will join the corset, but it will not be before the craze for collector purses, stored in air-conditioned cubicles, subsides or Jimmy Choo starts discounting to match Amazon.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].