Those of us who have been left bemused by the sudden rise of high-street botox booths, tanning shops, nail salons and eyebrow bars can take some comfort from this curious work by John Bulwer which suggests that, even as far back in 1653, people have always been astonished at the lengths to which some would go to transform their bodies in the name of fashion.
In Anthropometamorphosis: Man Transform’d, or The Artificial Changeling, Bulwer’s aim, according to the full title, is to expose the “mad and cruel gallantry, foolish bravery, ridiculous beauty, filthy fineness, and loathsome loveliness of most nations, fashioning & altering their bodies from the mould intended by nature”. Bulwer describes in detail how people around the world artificially modify their appearance, noting that every nation has a “particular whimzey as touching corporall fashions of their own invention.”
The book is divided into 23 sections covering all types of body modification and decoration, including tattooing, lip-piercing, binding, scarring, cosmetics, ear-piercing, and eyebrow shaping. Sections are accompanied by numerous woodcut illustrations contrasting ancient with modern or Old World with New.
In an appendix, The pedigree of the English gallant, the author looks more closely at how fashions in England have been influenced by practices in remote parts of the world. Although containing a strong element of social commentary, Bulwer’s work can also be considered one of the first studies in comparative cultural anthropology. He is rarely directly critical of primitive peoples; rather, Bulwer uses the universal nature of body modification to demonstate similar behaviours of humans everywhere (Anthropometamorphosis literally meaning “humanity-changing”). Bulwer may view some practices of remote tribes as laughable or barbaric, but no more laughable or barbaric than those of the ‘civilised’ world.
Man Transform’d was Bulwer’s final book. A physician by trade, he chose to return to his calling as a pioneer of communication with the deaf, having previously published the first treatise on sign language, Chirologia: or The naturall language of the hand.