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Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman in “the Arsenic Waltz,” Etching (1862) (courtesy Wellcome Library, London)

Staying stylish in the Victorian period could be a dance of death. While industrialization and mass production made more beautiful fashions widely available, the green dresses were dyed with arsenic-based pigments, the mercury necessary to make shiny beaver top hats drove the hatters insane, and all that tulle and cinched corsets contorting women into airy nymphs would not infrequently cause them to tumble into gas lamps and go up in flames.

Opened this week at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century explores the dangers of style not just for the wearers, but for the people who made the clothing as well. The exhibition of over 90 artifacts was organized by Bata Shoe Museum Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, and Alison Matthews David, an associate professor at the School of Fashion at Ryerson University who is publishing a book next year focusing on deadly fashion. Together the curators explored medical archives and collections in France and England, and delved into the museums’ extensive assortment of 19th century shoes and private collections searching for examples of the “poison garment,” hauling green shoes and shoeboxes to a physics lab to test for their lethal secrets.

Mauve boots dyed with the new synthetic color containing arsenic, picric acid, and other toxic chemicals, English (early 1860s) (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, photograph by Ron Wood)

“It’s seductive,” Matthews David told Hyperallergic over the phone in regards to the stunning fashion artifacts. “We wanted people to understand how beautiful they were, and how people would wear them even if they knew they were harmful.”

For example, there’s the achingly narrow shoes worn by women to slip into a “beauty ideal,” and for men and women alike there was mauve footwear tinged with the first synthetic dye. Created by William Henry Perkin in 1856, mauve was revolutionary in influencing color tastes. It was unfortunately incredibly toxic, made with arsenic, picric acid, and other harmful chemicals. Around the same time tortoises and elephants were being spared in making hair combs, but the manufactured celluloid was explosive. Ballerinas draped in tulle were pirouetting into gas lights on the stage at such a frequency it was called a “holocaust.” Even the high heel, which had come back into vogue in the late 1850s, deliberately threw women off-balance as part of a very confined, yet alluring, form of femininity.

To draw viewers into this world, the whole exhibition is structured like a showroom of the time. “You could just go through this beautiful Parisian shopping arcade and enjoy this spectacle of consumption, but if you read into it you find that the story behind it is not quite as pretty as the artifact,” she said.

The 19th century shoe demonstrates the movement over the era from personal relationships with independent artisans to industries like the 700 embroiderers who labored on boots in the factory of François Pinet. Matthews David points out how with these elaborate shoes, “the same object exists in both spaces,” moving from the unsanitary, debilitating conditions of the unventilated factories to the foot of a strutting member of the upper class. Likewise all those gleaming, shined boots were not kept clean in the dirty 19th century by the rich wearers, but by the numerous, poor shoeshine boys who worked the streets for scraps of money.

Boudoir slippers with destabilizing heels, French (1880–1885) Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum (photo: Ron Wood, image © 2014 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada)

“Emerald Green” dress colored with arsenic, English or French (c. 1860–1865) (Collection of Glennis Murphy, photograph Arnold Matthews)

Hands damaged by arsenic dyes, lithography from an 1859 medical journal (courtesy Wellcome Library)

Perhaps the most evocative fatal fashion trend of the 19th century is the color green. Before inventor Carl Wilhelm Scheele came along near the end of the 18th century, there was no color fast green, only the option to do a blue overlay with yellow or vice versa. By mixing arsenic and copper, Scheele developed a pigment that would hold, whether in wallpaper, paintings, or clothing. It also happened to look fantastic under natural and new gas light, an important duality for the time. By the mid-19th century, when, as Matthews David notes “nature was disappearing from the environment,” this “Emerald Green” was incredibly popular in artificial flowers. It was also highly toxic, even deadly, and it’s no coincidence that Baudelaire titled his book of tormented poems Les Fleurs du Mal — The Flowers of Evil — just as the death of a young artificial florist was being investigated.

Fashion Victims is presided over by one of these arsenic dresses, its color still vivid, and beguiling. And even as Emerald Green’s hazards were exposed in the 19th century, people still wanted it, and in a way, that hasn’t changed. “Emerald Green was the Pantone Color of the Year for 2013, which suggests that we still love it,” Matthews David said.

The longterm exhibition continues at the Bata Shoe Museum through June of 2016. Matthews David readily points out that although the fashions of the 19th century could seem insane for their dangers, we’ve hardly left death behind in style. “You always see the past through the filter of today, and it’s still ongoing,” she said. With horrific incidents like the 2013 garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, we may have just moved the mortality behind trends further away.

Fashion plate for the period that tested positive for arsenical pigments (1860–65) (collection of Alison Matthews David)

Flower wreathes from the period, which were dyed with arsenic pigments (1860–65) (collection of Alison Matthews David)

“Adelaide” satin boots colored with an arsenic-based dye, European (c.1840s) (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, photograph by Ron Wood)

Beaver fur hat, groomed to look like silk, still containing amounts of Mercury, Swiss (1885–1925) (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, photograph by Ron Wood)

Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century continues at the Bata Shoe Museum (27 Bloor Street W, Toronto, Canada) through June 2016. 

Editor’s note: In response to a comment below that suggests the hat was actually silk and not beaver, the author has added this:

“The curator Alison Matthews David affirms that the hat is indeed beaver. Their conservator examined it, and it’s actually high-quality fur “groomed” to look as glossy as silk (she notes that the later silk hats may have been made as less toxic fur alternatives before they got more fashionable).”

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

20 replies on “Fatal Victorian Fashion and the Allure of the Poison Garment”

  1. Dear Amber,
    You are totally right–my head was back in the Victorian period and I lost track of the present!
    Thanks for the correction! Alison Matthews David

  2. What would the poor boys have done for money if there had not been boots to shine in the streets of Paris? I mean this as a serious question.

    1. Lost their fingers and arms working in the cotton factories, of course. Or working in a sooty factory getting black lung. It was be exposed working outside, or slowly be maimed and die inside.
      I really hope you’re not posting this as “they had jobs, good for them!” kind of thing.

  3. I hope this does well enough that they might be able to put together a traveling exhibit for other museums/galleries.

  4. You mention “piric acid,” but it’s actually “picric acid,” a bright yellow, highly explosive acidic phenol.

  5. Such an interesting topic with a mix of the beautiful and grotesque. A perfect reference to Baudelaire given those qualities as well.

  6. Mercury Poisoning from the construction process of those Top hats.. That’s where “Mad as a Hatter” comes from.

  7. If one is willing to accept the INDIRECT LINKAGE in one’s qualified field of causality, then THE EATING DISORDERS OF THE MODERN AGE SURPASS THESE EVENTS BY FAR.
    How true the statement that we evaluate past and foreign history by modern and local standards !

  8. Years from now, there’ll be a Museum of 2014 Dangerous and Deadly Fashion, which will detail how many Americans, despite being neither Jewish nor Muslim, ignored Christian commandments in the New Testament and opted to have the genitals of their children “fashioned” via circumcision, to the continuing shock of the rest of the non-Muslim non-Jewish world, despite the serious harm caused and even the risk of death from the unnecessary cosmetic surgery being forced on defenceless babies, many of whom would either let out a high pitched wail in pain, or go into silent shock due to the pain (a deceptive state as it would appear that the baby was sleeping as he was being genitally mutilated)

  9. The top hat is woven silk, not beaver fur at all. The underlying structure may be made from beaver felt, but the shiny “fur” is a silk pile. Notice the top of the hat is a circle pattern? Animal fur doesn’t do that. I have two of those hats.

  10. I love your work. School would have been so much more interesting for me if teachers back in the day had used real examples to illustrate lessons. Thank you for the work you do!

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