Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Deadly Fashion

The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto just opened an exhibition called Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. The exhibition will run until June 30, 2016, and showcases to what lengths people would go to have the most fashionable clothes during the Victorian era - even if what you wore would make you sick, or even kill you...

One of the items on show is this beautiful green dress. Before the end of the 18th century there was no color-fast green. But then inventor Carl Wilhelm Scheele came up with the brilliant idea of mixing arsenic and copper, and so managed to create a green pigment that would hold in both wallpaper, paintings and fabric. By the mid 1800s this new emerald green had become extremely popular, and was used for both clothes and artificial flowers.

As the color contained arsenic though, it affected both factory workers, seamstresses, the wearer of the green dresses, and fellow ball goers. The biggest risk was if the wearer started to sweat and absorb the poison. Even after it got widely known that this arsenic-based green could lead to horrible physical suffering and early death people - mostly women - still continued wearing it. The picture above is from an 1859 medical journal, showing hands damaged by arsenic dyes.

The color mauve, as on the late 1860s boots above, were also highly toxic, containing arsenic, piric acid, and other harmful chemicals.

Another big health risk during this time was the combination of big skirts, tulle, and gas lights. Between the 1850s and 1860s Crinoline Fires killed around 3,000 women in England. Keeping track of those wide skirts around burning lights wasn't easy, but at the theaters it was even worse... As the short, disc-shaped tutus of today weren't yet invented - and neither was electricity - so many ballerina's managed to dance their long tulle tutus into the stage gas lights, that their deaths were referred to as The Holocaust of Ballet Girls. The picture above shows popular ballerina Emma Livry, who, at the age of twenty, died one of these deaths after eight months of suffering from her burns. Still these girls chose not to fire-proof their costumes, as this discolored and stiffened the flowy materials...

Mercury was used made to make shiny beaver fur top hats. This drove the hat makers insane, so mad hatters actually existed outside of Alice's Wonderland...

The Arsenic Waltz, Etching, 1862

With the amount of toxins used in today's creation of textiles, and the horrible work conditions of the people manufacturing clothes for some companies, we might not have come as far from the Victorian era as we think though...


  1. Haha...I tweeted about this, was gonna blog on it...*great minds* we have!! I found it so fascintating reading about these things and I agree with what you said at the end too, we haven't really come that far if you think about all the crap that gets put into clothes and products and the people who make them, the poor wages and conditions too. It's shameful. Crazy stuff!! Happy Wednesday doll Xxxxxxxxxxx

  2. I very much enjoyed this post. Especially the part about Scheele, as he was born in my hometown.
    People always did crazy things for fashion and sadly we didn´t learn very much from the past. The problem isn´t even that we decide to wear poisonous clothes, the problem is that we are forcing people to produce these clothes who have no other choice.


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