Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present
Alison Matthews David
Bloomsbury  225pp  £25

Fashion Victims by Alison Matthews David is a beautifully illustrated, accessible and highly thoughtful study of how fashion has been responsible for death and injury through the ages. It takes a fascinating look at the poisons and hazardous chemicals that were used to dye and treat fabrics and at styles of clothing that were dangerous to the wearer in their pursuit of fashionable extremes.  

The book recounts infamous stories, such as that of Isadora Duncan, the American dancer, who, in September 1927, stepped into her sports car in Nice only to be strangled to death as her long shawl got caught in the wheels as she sped away. The author looks, too, at another dangerous fashion, the cage-crinoline, the massive petticoat that held out the light fabrics so fashionable in the mid-19th century. This extreme bell-shaped skirt was vulnerable to getting caught under the wheels of carriages or catching fire when the wearer stood too close to the ubiquitous open fires and candles of the Victorian home. More than 3,000 deaths by fire were reported in one year, many caused by clothing ignition. Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters both died at a Halloween ball at Drummaconor House in November 1871, when one sister’s skirt caught light after brushing the open fire while dancing and the other sister’s was set alight trying to save her sibling. 

There were also less obvious dangers lurking within the warp and weft of clothing, such as the arsenic used to dye Victorian fabrics a fashionable green. We also learn that ‘Mad-hatters’ are so-called because of the mercury used in the millinery process. Lewis Carroll’s own Mad Hatter shows the signs of mercury poisoning:  anxiety, trembling and erratic behaviour. Even today, historic millinery has the potential to harm handlers, especially conservators who steam hats for display. The V&A in London keeps all its felted hats in special mylar bags marked with skull and crossbones.

The horrors of fashion’s darker side are not confined to history, however. The final chapter  reminds us not to judge fashion’s past victims harshly, or think smugly that the modern world has solved these dangers, with sad case studies reminding us that danger might be a little too close for comfort. In 2012 a highly fashionable studded peplum belt was discovered to be radioactive. The studs contained cobalt-60, which can cause lasting damage to the internal organs. The belt had been widely available: sold in 14 different countries and stocked by major online retailers. David also makes the important point that fashion’s real victims are usually the workers who are exposed to the harsher realities of its manufacture: the toxins, the machines, the sweat-shop conditions and the sheer hard labour. She draws thoughtful comparisons between 19th-century England and modern India and warns that globalisation and the mass market has distanced us from the manufacture of the clothes that we wear, with the risk that many of us are, in fact, more ignorant of fashion’s dangers than at any time in the past. 

Eleri Lynn is Curator of Collections at Historic Royal Palaces and curated the V&A’s exhibition, Undressed: 350 Years of Underwear in Fashion. 

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