7 Ways Victorian Fashion Was Deadly

Fashionistas around the world are willing to do what they must to stay on top of modern trends. The lengths both women and men are willing to go through to stay in the “now,” is absolutely astounding.

Nothing is more astounding, however, than what people went through in the Victoria era; after all, they were willing to die for their fashion trends.

After reading Professor Alison Matthews David’s new book, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and PresentBess Lovejoy, over at mental_floss, put together the following list of the questionable and deadly styles that women wore during the Victorian era

1. Arsenic Laced Dye

Prior to the Victorian era, the color green was a very difficult pigment to perfect. In the 1770s, Carl Wilhelm Scheelel met the demands of women who wanted green dresses when he invented:

a new green pigment by mixing potassium and white arsenic on a solution of copper vitriol.” 

The color was not limited to dresses, but was put on walls, in candles, food, and artificial flowers.

In short, fashionable women were exposed to arsenic not only by the fabric that touched their skin, or the food that they ate, but also by breathing it in from the pigments on the walls and in candles.

Most Victorian era fashionistas, however, were only lightly exposed compared to the workers in the factories that manufactured these items. Women, men, and children who labored in these factories inhaled these fumes all day, every day.

2. Disease Ridden Fabrics

Prior to understanding how disease travels, people would drape fabrics on sick loved ones, and then, without washing them, would wear or share the fabrics with others. For example:

According to [Professor] David, the daughter of Victorian Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel died after her riding habit, given to her by her father as a gift, was finished in the house of a poor seamstress who had used it to cover her sick husband as he lay shivering with typhus-induced chills. Peel’s daughter contracted typhus after wearing the garment, and died on the eve of her wedding.”

Though there was some ignorance to how disease spreads, some women were disgusted and:

worried about their skirts sweeping through the muck and excrement of city streets, where bacteria was rife, [that] some wore special skirt-fasteners to keep them up from the gunk.”

Those who did not have these skirt-fasteners often “suffered smallpox and other [deadly] diseases.”

3. Flowing, Crinoline Supported Skirts

The flowing skirts women wore during the Victorian era differed from the maxi skirts we wear today. They were “giant ruffled, crinoline-supported skirts.” A crinoline, for those who do not know, was a hoop type petticoat that women wore under skirts such as this:

Image by unknown 1856 artist – Scanned by H.Churchyard under a Public Domain license.

These skirts were often caught by carriages, grabbed by animals, and, for those women who worked in factories, were often caught in machinery.

In her book, Professor David explained how in one mill, the foreman:

posted a sign in 1860 forbidding the ‘present ugly fashion of HOOPS, or CRINOLINE, as it is called’ as being ‘quite unfitted for the work of our Factories.’ The warning was a wise one: In at least one printing office, a girl was caught by her crinoline and dragged under the mechanical printing press. The girl was reportedly ‘very slim’ and escaped unharmed, but the foreman banned the skirts anyway.”

Women who have donned ballgown style wedding dresses can readily understand the difficulties presented in wearing these “long, large, or draped skirts.”

4. Flammable Fabrics

Fabrics during the Victorian era often were made from white cotton, an already flammable product from the manufacturing methods available. Heavier silks and wools, also could easily catch fire. Tulle also was “stiffened with highly combustible starch” and resulted in deaths of average women and performers alike. For example:

British ballerina Clara Webster died in 1844 when her dress caught fire at London’s Drury Lane theatre after her skirt came too close to sunken lights onstage.”

Women were not the only ones who were at risk. Often, “nightshirts and undergarments” worn by women, men, and children were also highly flammable:

if hit with a stray spark or the flame of a household candle.”

5. Arsenic Ridden Taxidermy

I know you may be wondering how taxidermy fits into fashion, but in the 19th century, it was a fashionable for women to wear dead birds in their hats. Professor David explained:

fashions in millinery killed millions of small songbirds and introduced dangers that may still make some historic women’s hats harmful to humans today.”

The reason that these hats were so harmful is that 19th century taxidermists used:

arsenic-laced soaps and other products to preserve birds and other creatures.”

Having a dead bird on a hat sounds absolutely horrid. This is not something just 21st century women believe; Professor David explained that a 19th century fashion writer admonished these fashionistas by stating:

“‘[a] corpse is never a really pleasant ornament.‘”

6. Mercury Laced Hats

If you have ever seen any Victorian era based movie, you know that hats were very popular, particularly among the upper-class. Unfortunately, though they knew the toxicity of mercury, using this chemical was cheap and the “most efficient way” to make rabbit fur “into malleable felt.” In addition, mercury also helped the fur look “smooth, glossy, [and] matted.”

Those who wore these hats did not care that the mercury laced hats caused:

convulsions, abdominal cramps, trembling, paralysis, reproductive problems, and more.”

They gladly wore their hats, trying to stay with the then modern trend.

7. Lead Based White Face Paint

Women of the Victorian era wanted their skin to look white, so they “spackled” their faces with white paint. The problem, however, was that the white paint was full of lead.

According to Professor David, lead in makeup:

had been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for centuries.”

She believes the ingredient was popular because it:

made colors even and opaque and created a desirable ‘whiteness’ that bespoke both freedom from hard outdoor labor and racial purity.”

The problem of using lead in cosmetics led to conditions such as “wrist drop or radial nerve palsy,” a result of lead poisoning. Some symptoms also included:

fatigue, weight loss, nausea, headaches, muscle atrophy, [and] paralysis.”

Though many of these harmful chemicals have been banned by the Food and Drug Administration, lead can still be found in makeup today. The last known report was in a 2007 investigation by Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They discovered:

that a third of the 33 red lipsticks it had examined by an independent lab contained what the group considered a ‘hazardous level’ of lead.”

It is amazing that products many women wear today are still being produced with lead. At least women today are more educated and can make informed decisions before putting any toxic substance on their body. But sadly, just as in the Victorian era, many modern fashionistas will still ignore the warnings and go to extremes in order to stay on top of new trends.

h/t to Bess Lovejoy at mental_floss.

Featured image is a screenshot from mental_floss