The Most Ridiculous And Over-The-Top Status Symbols Throughout History

Humans love to assert their social status through the use of recognizable, lusted-after symbols even when, objectively speaking, the symbols themselves seem to make little sense. Status symbols from history prove that this is no contemporary phenomenon. For example, did you know that the Rolls Royce of ancient Iraqi culture was fancy board games? Or that to really stand out in 18th-century France you needed a pineapple? How about unwrapping a real-life mummy in 19th-century England to gain some prestige?

Like the strange beauty rituals people are willing to submit themselves to, the weirdest status symbols from history range from the bizarre to the downright macabre. Take a (very expensive) trip down memory lane remembering the strangest, most outlandish status symbols from history.

  • British Nobles Built Elaborate Fake Castle Ruins Complete With Fake Hermits

    British Nobles Built Elaborate Fake Castle Ruins Complete With Fake Hermits
    Photo: Shiroi Hane / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    In the 18th and 19th centuries in the United Kingdom, building a "folly" was all the rage for the rich and famous. What’s a folly? It’s a massive structure - think giant, ivy-covered castle ruins - built entirely for non-serious purposes like entertaining rich guests. Party-goers at the homes of nobility had the opportunity to tour and play in the follies, and most follies had their own “legends” attached. Some follies even had “hermits” living in them who were paid to jump out and scare guests with their gnarly, wizened visages.

    Other than the exorbitant expense of building and maintaining a folly (which is what made it a status symbol), the whole concept doesn’t sound so different from the living history demonstrations and cosplay people love to participate in today.

  • Wealthy Victorians Would Buy Mummies To Unwrap At Dinner Parties

    Wealthy Victorians Would Buy Mummies To Unwrap At Dinner Parties
    Photo: Tomas Castelazo / via Wikimedia Commons

    Those Victorians really knew how to show off with panache. During 19th century England's “Egyptomania” phase (where everyone was basically obsessed with all things ancient Egypt), one of the more macabre methods of showing your status was your ability to purchase an Egyptian mummy to have on display at gatherings at your home. The really well off didn’t just purchase mummies to display them, either. They would host elaborate “unwrapping” parties where their guests had the unique opportunity to watch as millennia-old corpses were unwrapped in front of them. 

  • Chinese Women Had Their Feet Crippled As A Status Symbol

    Chinese Women Had Their Feet Crippled As A Status Symbol
    Photo: Library of Congress, Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection / via Wikimedia Commons

    For nearly ten centuries, if you were a woman who wanted to marry into money in China, then you submitted to the unbelievably painful practice of foot binding. Foot binding - which left its practitioners with so-called “lotus feet” - involved breaking the toes and bones of the arch and binding them tightly together from the time a girl was around 7 years old until adulthood. Lotus feet, which are about three inches long, signified both beauty and status. The thinking behind the symbols goes, if you can submit to a process that will render you unable to really walk or work, you must come from a family wealthy enough for your labor not to matter. The practice actually had to be nationally outlawed in 1912 in order to get people to stop doing it.

  • Frivolous X-Rays Were A Rich Man's Hobby At The Turn Of The Century

    If you wanted to demonstrate both your status and your eccentricity, there was no better way to do it than by getting x-rays taken of your body. At least this was the case in the United States in the early twentieth century. X-rays would be performed as public spectacles, with crowds gathering around the ingenious machine, anxious to get a glimpse of someone’s bones. The resulting images were often framed and hung on the walls, like oil paintings might have been in years past. But just seeing an x-ray performed wasn’t enough for the true seekers of status. Owning your own, personal x-ray machine was the real mark of a cultivated connoisseur. 

  • Tulips Were Big Business - Until A Flower Market Crash Tanked The Economy

    Historians refer to the 1630s in Holland as the heyday of “tulipomania” in the country. Basically, the history of the tulip as a major status symbol in Holland began when tulip bulbs first arrived there in 1562 after (it’s rumored, at least) an Austrian ambassador stole them from the Ottoman court. Their beauty and colorfulness, combined with the rarity of tulips, made them a status symbol reserved for only the wealthiest in the country. At the apex of tulipomania, a single tulip bulb could be sold for as much as ten times the yearly salary of a skilled craftsman... while it was still in the ground! However, the tulip market crashed in 1637, completely devastating the Dutch economy.

  • Being Overweight Meant You Could Afford Rich Food And A Life of Leisure

    Being Overweight Meant You Could Afford Rich Food And A Life of Leisure
    Photo: Hans Holbein the Younger / via Wikimedia Commons

    It may be surprising to learn that the expression “fat cat" (which is now used to refer to moneyed, slimy-but-powerful members of the elite) has somewhat literal origins. Weight, especially possessing lots of it, stood for a long time as a symbol of status and prosperity.  If you could afford to be overweight, you obviously had enough money to buy sumptuous food, and you had the ability to avoid manual labor.

    Weight as a status symbol basically clung on until the early twentieth century when, for the first time in the West, plentiful food supplies become relatively abundant even for the lowest members of the social hierarchy. Today, when cooking healthful food and going to the gym requires more leisure time and money, thinness has become a status symbol instead.