June 10, 2014

Deaths by crinoline and gowns dyed with arsenic

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Deadly Victorian fashions by Anne Kingston in McLean's

The “arsenic” ball gown sits on a headless dressmaker’s form in the basement archives of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum as senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, wearing cotton conservators’ gloves, expounds upon its vintage (late 1860s), its provenance (Australia), its exquisite construction—and, most relevantly, its ability to kill. The green of the shimmering silk, now slightly faded, was one of the Victorian era’s most fashionable hues; people, mostly women, wore it even after it was widely known that the arsenic-based dye responsible for the colour could lead to horrible physical suffering and early death. When asked if the dress poses any danger still, Semmelhack pauses. “We’ve been counselled not to lick it,” she says, laughing.
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“Crinoline fires” killed 3,000 women between the late 1850s and late 1860s in England. Women would lose sense of their circumference, step too close to a fire grate, then flames would be fanned by oxygen circulating under their skirts. Until electricity, ballerinas also routinely perished when the muslin of their tutus met gas lamps; the deaths were referred to at the time as the “holocaust of ballet girls.” (The remedy, flame-retardant fabrics, was seen by many as too ugly to wear.)

You can see for yourself at the exhibition Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. The show opens June 18 and runs through 2016 at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

Posted by Jill Fallon at June 10, 2014 8:38 AM | Permalink