Fashion is a funny thing. You'd think that people would want to wear garments, shoes, and accessories that were comfortable and serviceable, but as many a person with blistered feet can attest, clothing and footwear aren't always designed with comfort in mind. Some people protest and opt to wear only pain-free fashions. Others suffer because we must be elegant or die. Painful hairpins, ill-fitting shoes, scratchy sweaters, choking neckties, sharply pointed Victorian collars . . . oh yes, fashion hurts. Painfully, this is Truth in Television: the fashion-minded have choked, mutilated and even poisoned themselves in various ways as long as the concept of fashion has existed.
Though it's frequently played for comedy, this trope can also be invoked by a work in order to create An Aesop about the vanity of focusing too much on physical appearance at the expense of health or comfort, and often represents the trappings of societal norms. Refusing to wear the painful fashion sometimes becomes an act of rebellion; alternatively, those not wise enough to realize the absurdity of fashion may become the subject of ridicule.
See Of Corset Hurts for all corset or girdle-related pain, and High Heel Hurt for high heel-related pain. See Weight Loss Horror for other examples in which attempting to maintain appearance can have unfortunate consequences. Where this is intentionally done for the sake of asceticism or plain masochism, see Deliberately Painful Clothing.
- During Jean Grey and Storm's first social outing in X-Men, Jean is horrified to see that Ororo is naked after she whisks away her superhero costume, since her Kenyan tribe had no nudity taboo. Jean hurriedly finds something for Ororo to wear, who mentions that the outfit is uncomfortable. Jean replies, "Just don't breathe or sit down and you'll be fine." After getting used to Western fashion, however, Ororo generally averts this trope, preferring loose-fitting garments (her Punk phase notwithstanding) and sensible shoes.
- Clueless: "I know it sounds mental, but sometimes I have more fun vegging out than when I go partying. Maybe because my party clothes are so binding."
- Truvy in Steel Magnolias has this to say about shoes: "In a good shoe, I wear a size six, but a seven feels so good, I buy a size eight." (Meaning she's a size eight but will squeeze down to a six for the right shoe.)
- A Lakota police officer in Thunderheart examines the footprints of an FBI agent he doesn't like and points out "You've got a drag to your step due to the back-up piece around your right ankle and shoes that are a size too small and hurt, but damn I bet they look good on you!"
- In Molly's last American Girl book, she's obsessed with curling her hair so she'll be more likely to get picked for the lead role in a patriotic dance for her tap class. After trying various increasingly uncomfortable methods, she resorts to one that involves sleeping with soaking-wet hair, which causes her to catch a cold and not be able to perform at all. The upside is that she's the only one home when her father comes back from the war.
- In Can You Keep A Secret? by Sophie Kinsella, Jemima puts on a new black suede dress for a date. It's so tight that she has trouble walking, bending down, speaking, and even breathing. Her flatmates try to talk her out of wearing the dress, but she is willing to suffer in order to show off her figure.
- Young Peter Cratchitt from A Christmas Carol borrows a shirt collar from his father in honor of Christmas Day. The collar nearly chokes him, according to the narrator, but he's still proud to wear it.
- Invoked several times in Gone with the Wind.
- Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" had oysters attached to her tail by her grandmother to show her great rank.
Little Mermaid: But they hurt me so.
Grandmother: Pride must suffer pain.
- In Little Women, Jo and Meg were willing to put up with too-tight shoes and painful hairpins in order to be properly dressed for a New Year's Eve party.
- Memoirs of a Geisha references this idea several times. The best quote being "beauty is synonymous with pain."
- Plutarch used this as an analogy in the 1st century CE, making this Older Than Feudalism: "A Roman divorced from his wife, being highly blamed by his friends, who demanded, 'Was she not chaste? Was she not fair? Was she not fruitful?' Holding out his shoe, he asked them whether it was not new and well made. 'Yet,' added he, 'none of you can tell where it pinches me.'"
- In The Pyrates, Black Bilbo insists on wearing a pair of red heeled boots that are too small for him (he took them off a dead man) because they are the latest fashion in Europe.
- In Ramona Forever, Ramona and Beezus are forced to wear too-small shoes to a wedding. They eventually rebel by tying them to the newly-married couple's getaway car. Their mother then admits she'd forgotten how long the girls had had the shoes (and thus didn't realise the girls had outgrown said footwear) and doesn't pursue the issue.
- In Sharpe's Waterloo, the Prince of Orange wears a winter uniform with lots of fur and thick layers at the Battle of Quatre Bras. It was the hottest day of the year, but his vanity would permit nothing less.
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, being about China at the time period where foot-binding was forced on girls, features this. One character dies from the consequences.
- One chapter of Wayside School is Falling Down is about Picture Day. Stephen, one of the students, is wearing a three-piece suit and tie. He explains (very matter-of-factly) to the class that "You have to wear uncomfortable shoes if you want to look important," and that "The more the tie chokes me, the better I look." Naturally, the class encourages him to pull the tie tighter and tighter until it's literally strangling him — which also makes him tremendously handsome.
- Several segments of 1000 Ways to Die, including a man who used a corset to correct his bulging stomach but winds up breaking a rib and bleeding to death.
- Another focused on a former model who tried to use corn oil as an alternative to botox, she winds up causing cell death when it winds up in her organs.
- Another segment focused on a hatter who goes insane from the mercury used in the hatmaking process and eventually dies from mercury poisoning.
- Another segment focused on a girl who buys an authentic 19th-century green Irish dress only to die when the chemicals used in the dressmaking process cause madness, then poison her.
- Another segment was about a typical 50s girl who uses massive amounts of hairspray in her huge beehive only for it to catch fire and burn her scalp and fry her brain when cigarette smoke ignites it.
- Another segment focused on a girl who wore a metal bra to fix her figure and then get zapped by lightning while trying to do a wet t-shirt contest in a rainstorm.
- Another segmented focused on a chick that wanted a big butt to help her music career (It Makes Sense in Context). Because she didn't have the money to afford professional surgery, she instead let some shady guy inject calking compound in her butt cheeks. The quack accidentally injects some into an artery which causes a fatal embolism.
- Another segment was about a lonely outcast hunter who wears animal skins and furs. While getting some water from a stream he's mistakenly shot by another hunter who thought he was a wild animal.
- In an episode of CSI, the team coroner has difficulty probing a dead man's body for his liver to take his temperature. They discover that the man lived his life like he was a gentleman of the Civil War South and wore a corset. Years of wear squeezed all of his lower internal organs together and up several inches.
- In an episode of Everwood, Delia's grandmother refuses to let her take off her sweltering hot stockings, because "New York women are willing to suffer for fashion".
- French comedy sketch show Vous - Les Femmes has its two stars trying on new underwear in the shop's changing room. They want stylish underwear - but are determined to test its potential for riding up, rucking up and causing inadvertent wedgies and how uncomfortable this is likely to be in wear. So the hapless changing room assistant sees two women contorting into ever-more ludicrous positions, including one who is actually assessing her new knickers' potential for pain by standing on her head...
- On Friends Monica insisted on buying a pair of expensive (and uncomfortable) boots over Chandler's objections. She quickly realized she couldn't wear them without wincing. Of course, it didn't help when a party came up and he wanted her to wear them, using her own claim that they "go with everything" against her. When Monica confides in Rachel about how much the boots hurt Rachel offers to take them off her hands because "I haven't felt my feet in years!"
- Gilligan's Island: In "Gilligan the Goddess", Gilligan is Disguised in Drag and asks Ginger and Mary Ann how they put up with how much high heels pinch their feet. They tell him to think about how much the earrings are pinching his ears instead.
- Horrible Histories has covered the trope in Stupid Deaths, where the cause of death is the vicious cycle of applying lead based make up to cover smallpox scars. Which then leads to more scarring, followed by more make up, followed by more scars and more make up until death. To make things more absurd, two ladies come in having died this way, one right after the other, causing Death to quip "Lead me guess."
- On Hot in Cleveland, Victoria designs some very stylish shoes, the only drawback being how painful they are when one wears them.
- In an episode of I Love Lucy, Fred objects to the expense of Ethel's new shoes, if they're uncomfortable. Ethel replies, "One does not buy expensive shoes for comfort."
- In The IT Crowd, Jen crams her feet into a pair of shoes she loves even though they are a couple of sizes too small. And almost cripples herself in the process.
- In the first season of The Kids in the Hall, Dave Foley once played a fashion designer who created women's clothes meant to horribly injure the wearer. Designs included a pair of shoes made from boxes filled with broken glass and a railroad spike meant to go through a woman's head.
- Done subtly at the end of an episode of Mad Men in which Joan, on top of personal problems, hits the glass ceiling at work: getting undressed, she sits on her bed and rubs the spot on her shoulder where her bra strap has dug into it, symbolizing the burdens of being a woman.
- Later Sally Draper's friend talks to Betty about how her late mother would torture herself into a rubber girdle that would leave her stomach in pain, just so she'll look trim.
- In The Nanny, Fran is an admitted fashionista, and readily admits that her outfits are borderline torture. She's admitted to squeezing her feet into shoes a couple of sizes too small if they're on sale, and in one episode, she was getting ready to go out, brought out two outfits, and said "Which should I wear? This one itches, but I look taller. This one pinches, but I look thinner." When Maxwell asks if she's ever considered a comfortable outfit, she scoffs, telling him that the second you start dressing for comfort, it's a slippery slope into becoming the type of person who goes grocery shopping in a bathrobe and slippers.
- Invoked constantly on the Drag Queen reality competition show RuPaul's Drag Race, between the corsets, duct tape, genital tucking, and ridiculously high heeled shoes, RuPaul has claimed outright it takes a man with some really big balls to be tough enough to be a drag queen. In the backstage companion series Untucked, which takes place during the judges' deliberation, the queens often kick off their heels and remove other uncomfortable parts of their outfits to relax.
- The "dress" Amanda receives in the Ugly Betty episode "Icing on the Cake". Watch this compilation starting at 5:40. "Fashion is a pain," indeed.
- Averted in "Mrs. Potato Head" by Melanie Martinez. The protagonist laments over the concept of plastic surgery and comes to the conclusion it's best to be comfortable in yourself as you naturally are.
Oh Mrs. Potato Head tell me, is it true that pain is beauty?
Does a new face come with a warranty?
Will a pretty face make it better?
- 'Beauty has a Price' from the Andrew Lloyd Webber version of Cinderella has the plastic surgeon Godmother describe the pain the title character is going to be in due to her makeover, with a particular focus on the crystal slippers. In fact, she warns Cinderella to be home by midnight because that's how long she predicts her ability to tolerate the pain will last.
- 'Haus of Holbein' from Six focuses on weird Tudor fashion and beauty treatments. This includes the lead poison in Tudor make up, bleaching hair with urine and heels so high its questionable if the wearer will "still walk at forty."
- This is a major theme of the short play The Waiting Room - both Forgiveness and Victoria suffer terrible health consequences as a result of trying to adhere to the fashions of their respective cultures - when the play opens, Forgiveness has already had a toe fall off as a result of her feet being bound, while Victoria's been suffering from hysterical episodes brought on by her corset crushing her organs.
- In an episode, Quinn bought a cute pair of high heeled sandals and wore them everywhere despite them pinching her toes and swelling her feet to the point where she could barely walk.
Sandy: How are the shoes, Quinn?
Quinn: They're killing me. But don't I look cute?
- A later episode she mentions that she has to suffer for fashion and has a hair-dryer set on full blast.
- In an episode, Quinn bought a cute pair of high heeled sandals and wore them everywhere despite them pinching her toes and swelling her feet to the point where she could barely walk.
- An old, and no longer practiced, Chinese tradition was women having tiny dainty shoes. In order to make women's feet so small to fit in those shoes, they would soak the feet of children then break the bones of and bound them tightly in linen to create tiny little feet. Sure, the downside was extreme pain and losing the ability to walk in many cases, but look at how small their feet are!
- Note that Chinese women were always supposed to be seen by men in the "lotus shoes" — never barefoot. It was written that if a man were to look upon a woman's feet after they had been unbound, the effect would be ruined forever. One can clearly see why (Warning: Nausea Fuel!). Supposedly. they even smelled as bad as they looked.
- According to some sources, flower pot◊ shoes were adopted to combat the idea (as the shoes made the foot look smaller, instead of being for smaller feet, along with creating the "swaying gait" that foot-binding supposedly made).
- Chopines were tall platform shoes or overshoes worn during the 15th to 17th century in Western Europe, particularly Italy and Spain. The height varied greatly, from only a few inches to as much as 20 inches tall. As with corsets, there is controversy over whether they were as painful and difficult to wear as they look.
- Some scholars insist that wearing them not only made wearer's footing and balance precarious, it also caused a gait rather like the lurching stomp typical of Frankenstein's Monster, but Fabritio Caroso, an Italian dancing master of the time wrote in 1600 that a woman practiced in wearing chopines could not only move gracefully in them but also dance in them.
- It is practically customary for a girl or woman to wear high heeled shoes for a formal occasion. If she usually wears sensible shoes for everyday wear, she will "break them in" so that she can get used to wearing them and so be able to walk in them more gracefully, if not with less pain.
- Of course, even women who aren't particularly fashion-conscious may find themselves roped into wearing heels every day as part of office Dress Codes.
- The characteristic shape of formal shoes, putting the longest part in the center, causes a specific deformity common in American women where the big toe curves downwards and the little toe curves upwards.
- New shoes are always this. If you expect to stand up in them a lot, it is normal to spend a few days gently damaging them until they are broken enough not to hurt anymore but not quite enough to look bad. Then you have a few weeks while they still look almost as good as new.
- Many black women will use "relaxers" to straighten their hair out, the style of which was known as a "conk". The relaxer not only alters the texture of the hair so that it's not straight, but it also burns the scalp, especially if it's an at-home kit rather than a salon treatment. Talk about adding injury to insult.
- It's not just women. In his autobiography, Malcolm X talked about getting a conk when he was a teenager and regularly had one for many years - until he realized how foolish he was being by burning his flesh just so he could "look white".
- This gets mentioned in Rivers of London, where the mixed-race main character says that for years he thought black women's hair naturally smelled burned.
- Also appears in White Teeth, when Irie (whose mother never relaxed her hair and has mostly cut off from her Jamaican roots) isn't prepared for how relaxers work and actually gets her hair ''burned off' by them.
- As well as the practice of wearing weaves and extensions, which involves sewing face or real hair onto "tracks" created by tightly braiding whatever original hair the woman has. The process is expensive, time-consuming, and painful for most women. And to maintain their "perfect" look, most women promptly abstain from previous activities that they enjoyed — exercise, swimming, etc.
- Of course, white women have had their own miseries of stinging, smelling goos, prickly bobby pins, and ugly, bulky curlers in order to curl their hair. Seems nobody's happy with what they have.
- Corsets used to be used in Europe in a similar way to the foot binding in China (detailed above). Preteen girls would wear them at a given tightness at all hours of the day, even when sleeping, in order to compress their waists into a desired shape and measurement. Bear in mind, however, that the modern impression of corsets is based more on BDSM fashion than truth; corsets were tight, but not "break your ribs" tight.
- Just to show that painful fashion isn't Always Female, Victorian men would wear starched shirt collars that were intended to be as high and as stiff as possible. This restricted blood flow to the head, and if a man happened to fall asleep (or pass out) with it on, they could strangle or even stab them in the throat.
- In German, they are called "Vatermörder", literally "parricidal person"; the formal name in English is a loan word from French that means the same: "Parricide".
- Such harmful fashions are not only excluded to the human race. In the 1800s, stylish carriage horses were often forced to wear "bearing reins" to keep their heads up, often to an extreme degree that maimed the poor animals. The practice was partially abolished in part to protests raised by Anne Sewell's famous novel, Black Beauty, which also delivers some scathing criticism on practices like "docking" the tails of horses and the tails and ears of dogs (that is, cutting bits of them off) to make them look more stylish.
- The same goes for many purebred cats and dogs, who often must endure crippling genetic diseases and abnormalities for the sake of adhering to (rather capricious) standardized breeding shapes. One example is preserving the classic "golden retriever" type; breeders would sometimes resort to inbreeding their dogs, which, unsurprisingly, led to a myriad of defects, including hip degeneration. And the classic British Bulldog has such a malformed ribcage that it cannot breathe without pain.
- Suntans: Not immediately painful unless you do it too long and get burned, but even doing it right increases your risk of deadly skin cancer later in life.
- Suntans are also an example of how times and cultures can change so drastically over time; before the Industrial Revolution, suntans were seen as ugly and a sign that one was poor, being forced to work out in the sun all day. Nowadays, with the large majority of people working indoors, often in front of a computer, a suntan is seen as attractive, as it meant you were wealthy enough to leave your job sometimes and be in the sun.
- Neckties are uncomfortable, choke you, and leave you extremely vulnerable to attack, but they're still practically required wear for even semi-formal occasions if you're a man. This is all somewhat averted with clip-on ties, which are sometimes required for people who are really vulnerable for attack such as police officers.
- Roman men absolutely hated togas, which were extremely heavy pieces of cloth (generally wool) that not only weighed you down and wore you out, but practically baked you alive wearing one in a hot Italian summer—rather like a modern wool suit, which makes sense given that the toga was basically the Roman equivalent of the suit and tie. They were so heavy and draped down so far that doing anything physical in them was nearly impossible (hence the toga's longstanding association with peace - you literally couldn't fight wearing one). Togas were so disliked that the Senate actually had to legislate wearing them on the Senate floor because so many senators and patricians had simply worn their tunics because of how inconvenient togas were.
- This article discusses the trope on why women continue wearing skinny jeans, corsets (both historically and as a result of Kardashian fame), high heels, and Spanx; mostly because "aesthetic apathy is a sin worse than ugliness".
- Then there's also tattoos and piercings, especially since people tend to get those without any kind of anesthetic (depending on the tattoo parlor, in the former case, as some do use a topical anesthetic).
- A precolonial Visayan practice in the Philippines was that of the binukot, where a wealthy young girl (especially the daughter of a king/chief) was kept indoors to develop a fair complexion and learn extensive cultural knowledge. She would only go outside when carried on a litter and was shaded from the sun. Surprisingly Realistic Outcome—after spending infancy or childhood to adulthood confined, most of them couldn't walk. (This was often a draw for wealthy suitors, akin to China's foot-binding example—only wealthy men could afford to have such a frail and delicate wife.) The practice died out VERY quickly after World War II, when huge numbers of binukot women were captured by the Japanese. The cultural subjects that the binukot were once in charge of were naturally opened to regular people, and modern Filipinos often consider the binukot practice to be child abuse.
- And let's not get started on toxic dyes used on dresses and cosmetics either. One of the most infamous was Scheele's Green and the chemically similar Paris green, which, among other things, was used to dye dresses and other garments. Needless to say, the pigments would often if not always end up having a fatal disagreement with its wearer, causing severe skin irritation, vomiting, headaches, abdominal irritation and eventually death. Such was its toxicity that museum curators and staff would handle them with hazmat equipment, and they had to encase said dresses in sealed glass boxes for fairly obvious reasons. As far as cosmetics are concerned, there's Venetian ceruse, which was said to have been used by Queen Elizabeth I (albeit disputed by most historians), and by Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry, who died at an early age as a result of chronic lead poisoning from the ceruse.