Saturday, June 14, 2014

Arsenic Ball Gowns and Other Dangers

Fashion in the 19th century could be a perilous endeavour. Not just for the wearers, but also for those employed in making the desired objects. Below are just some of the dangerous items that could cause discomfort, injury or even death for the wearers.

Arsenic Dye
In the 1770s a Swedish chemist by the name of Carl Wilhelm Scheele created a brilliant green dye made from copper, hydrogen, oxygen and arsenic. The vivid hue became quite popular in the Victorian era. It was used in everything from clothes, to soap, children's toys and even candy. It may be surprising, but arsenic was a very common substance to get a hold of. There was even a case of a candy maker in 1858, accidentally putting arsenic instead of sugar into lozenges causing the death of 20 people in England.

The Arsenic Ball Gown
Above is an arsenic dyed gown dated from 1860, from Australia, featured in an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The curators still must handle the gown with gloves so as to not absorb the dye. The gown was dangerous for the wearer as sweating would cause them to absorb the arsenic. This could cause illness and even death. If you were lucky you might get away with a rash. It wasn't only a risk for the wearer. Those involved in the manufacturing process were in danger too. Everyone from the due makers to the dress makers were at risk. Even those who came into contact with the wearer during a dance could be poisoned!

Crinoline Fires and Indecency
With the invention of crinoline in the 1830s and subsequent popularity in the 1850s and 60s more clothing related problems appeared. The good thing about crinolines is that they were lighter and more flexible then wearing multiple petticoats. This allowed the wearer more comfort and a greater circumference of skirt. One of the drawbacks was that the lightness of the cage could cause gusts of wind to knock the wearer over, indecently exposing the lady. This could also occur when sitting down if you did not smooth the dress down, it could fly up in your face like an inside out umbrella.
The most dangerous side effect was crinoline fires. Ladies would sometimes forget how large their dress was and get too close to a fire. The oxygen under the skirts of the dress would add to the flames as well as the wearer often trying to run away in panic. In England alone between the late 1850s and the1860s there was an estimate 3000 deaths due to crinoline fires.
As a side note there is one case where it appears to have saved someone. In 1885 after a lover's quarrel, Sarah Ann Henley jumped off the Clifton Suspension bridge in Bristol. The fall of 246 feet was slowed when her dress acted like a parachute.

the Holocaust of Ballet Dancers
Crinoline wasn't the only fabric catching fire. Ballet dancers died during this era with horrifying frequency, causing the above phrase to be coined. The dancers would wear flammable muslin while dancing on stages lit by torches and gas lamps. The deaths were unnecessary as flame retardant was available and cages could of been put around the lamps. The flame retardant was considered unattractive, so dancers were discouraged from using it. Many dancers were burned to death unfortunately or left horribly scarred.

These are just a few of the dangers of fashion in this era. I might do a part two on this featuring Mercury in hats, corsets cutting women and painfully small shoes.
Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


  1. I never knew about any of this. I was aware of mercury in hats, hence the Mad Hatter, but arsenic as dye? Flammable crinolines when flame retardant was available? What were they thinking? Surely, regardless of how ugly the alternative was, it would have been worth wearing. I'm not sure fashion is worth dying or becoming horribly disfigured for lol.

  2. It might be awful to say but this was a really nice and entertaining post, even though it's about unfortunate deaths of people! :) You always have such interesting topics and information.

  3. Damn those Swedes :) coming up with hazardous dyes! That exhibition must be a real treat for the eyes but with horror stories.

  4. Wow, this is a very interesting post ! I did not now about that !