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.
“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.
— Bata Shoe Museum (@batashoemuseum) June 18, 2014
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.
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 long-term 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 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).”