It’s that time of year when many of us scour our closets and the Internet for the perfect Halloween costume. In many ways, October has become the month when the relationship between clothes and death symbolism is perhaps most visible in contemporary society, with a reliable contingent of people donning their Grim Reaper, ghost, or skeleton looks every year. Many cultures also have legends of deadly garments, but did you know that for centuries, regular clothing could be just as scary as a Michael Myers mask or vampire fangs? So much so that it could kill you!
Clothes have many functions: they protect us from the elements, insulate us from hot and cold, connote our values, and help us express who we are or who we wish to be. However, as dress historian Alison Matthews David (2015) expertly points out in the great read Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, “Clothing, which is supposed to shield our fragile, yielding flesh from danger, often fails spectacularly in this important task… Even the most banal everyday garments, including socks, shirts, skirts, and even flannelette pyjamas, have harmed us.”1 This was particularly true in the late modern period (1750-1945) as a bevy of new materials and styles were introduced to fashion manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution.
We’ll never have an exact accounting, but thousands of people of all genders—both wearers and garment workers—died from poisonings, fires, scarves being caught in machinery, and other kinds of clothing-related accidents. Coupled with a lack of public safety laws and regulations, fashion became a recipe for disaster.
So, without further ado, let’s talk about the fascinating history of fashion, death, and the incredibly dangerous materials people used to adorn themselves with.
If Looks Could Kill: The History of Death and Fashion
Death by Crinoline Fire
It might initially be hard to imagine how a glorified petticoat could kill someone, but these fashionable garments led to quite the death toll in the nineteenth century. Crinolines and the voluminous shapes they helped women achieve became popular in the late 1840s, especially in Victorian England and the United States. Their wide circumference, which could reach up to six yards, initially provided the elite with a way to distinguish themselves sartorially from the lower classes.
Crinolines quickly became popular among women from all walks of life, with many understanding the garment as a form of emancipation. This may seem perplexing to the modern reader, but crinolines replaced layers of heavy petticoats with a light and flexible alternative, offering women greater mobility and comfort. They also allowed women to assert physical space in public spaces, as crinolines forced men to the margins of sidewalks (Mitchell 2016). Crinolines grew so wide over the following decades that they prompted a satirical and moralistic backlash from contemporaries who viewed them as “impractical and ostentatious,” demonstrating how women’s fashion has historically been construed as silly and vain (Germsheim 1982).
The supposed frivolity of crinolines was not the only issue, though, as crinolines were wildly flammable. Although flame-retardant fabrics were available at the time, most wearers thought them to be unattractive and would not purchase them. This decision to favor flammable crinolines using bobbinet, muslin, gauze, and tarlatan was ultimately disastrous. As Martin Bide, a professor in the textiles, fashion merchandising, and design at the University of Rhode Island says, “If you imagine a sheet of newspaper and a hunk of wood, essentially, chemically, they are the same. But one will catch light way more quickly than the other. So if you have a very flimsy, flowing something that mixes well with air, it will burn quite readily.”
In England alone, the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that crinoline-related fires killed over 3,000 women in 1860.2 Such deaths could occur for a number of reasons, predominantly that wearers could not see the ground and often unknowingly stood above a dropped cigar or other ignition source. Furthermore, the swinging motion of crinolines was incredibly hazardous in the vicinity of a hearth, as it was difficult to gain an accurate sense of a skirt’s sweep.
As you will see in the following examples, the risk of death did not seem to really deter wearers from the style. Instead, fashion trends evolved as they are wont to do, with more women embracing the bustle in the 1870s and even slimmer styles later in the century. Thank goodness—burning alive is definitely on our list as one of the worst ways to die.
Mercury and Mad Hatter Disease
You might think the phrase “mad as a hatter” comes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but some scholars believe it entered our lexicon due to the mercury poisoning hatmakers suffered from en masse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Historians have not definitively determined this origin story, but it absolutely seems plausible when we take a look at the very real dangers of hatmaking. A variety of men’s hats at the time were made from rabbit or beaver fur, which hatters transformed into felt by washing them in a mercury-based solution or brushing mercury on the hairs to make them stick together.
While it became a joke, mercury poisoning was far from funny, as its effects could be debilitating and deadly. Those who wore mercury-laced hats were protected by lining, but this was not the case for those who made them, predominantly immigrants. For many hatmakers, one of the first symptoms that appeared after exposure was neuromotor problems like trembling. (In the hat manufacturing town of Danbury, Connecticut, which produced up to 5 million hats a year, this symptom came to be colloquially known as the “Danbury shakes.”) Others experienced extreme paranoia and psychological outbursts, as well as cardio-respiratory problems, tooth loss, and early death. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, these effects were relatively well documented at the time in France, England, and the US, but many hatmakers simply viewed them as hazards of the job. Hatters’ occupational risks were not curbed until 1941, when mercury was reserved for the manufacture of detonators in World War II (Wedeen 1989).
We immediately associate arsenic with danger today, but that was not always the case. This was especially true in Victorian England, where arsenic was used in a terrifying array of household items. The reason for this was twofold: discoveries made during the Industrial Revolution made arsenic easy to produce, and there was an ever-increasing market for vivid dyes as homes and public spaces transitioned from candlelight to gas lighting. In particular, women wanted fabrics that would better stand out in brightly lit ballrooms. Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele answered this demand by using copper arsenite to create “Scheele’s Green” in 1775 (later reformulated at Paris Green). The shade was an instant hit, being used in an almost never-ending list of items such as clothing, wallpaper, soap, cosmetics, insecticide, and fireworks. It’s estimated that one gown made using these hues could carry up to 900 grams of arsenic. (For comparison, it only takes 5 grams to kill a full-grown adult.)
Similar to the protection offered to men who wore lined felt hats, many women did not have prolonged contact with the arsenic-laced fabric due to the sheer amount of undergarments required of the era, such as pantalettes, bloomers, corsets, petticoats, and crinolines.3 However, there was no such protection for the artists, seamstresses, florists, milliners, and factory workers who manufactured the fanciful garments. In 1861, the particularly horrid death of a 19-year-old Matilda Scheurer went the ye olde times version of viral in England. Matilda worked in an artificial flower factory in Leeds, where she regularly brushed powdered green pigment onto decorations that were used in hats and dresses. Newspapers reported that she experienced convulsions and vomiting before the whites of her eyes and fingernails turned green. On her deathbed, Matilda even claimed that everything she saw had turned into a violent emerald shade.
The outcry and sensationalism from Matilda’s death was not the only example of contemporary social awareness about arsenic’s deadly effects. As art historian Lucinda Hawksley details in Bitten By Witch Fever: Wallpaper & Arsenic in the Nineteenth-Century Home, doctors acknowledged the “great deal of slow poisoning going on in Great Britain” as early as the mid-1850s. Illustrations and cartoons ran in newspapers and magazines depicting skeletons dancing a new version of the danse macabre called the “Arsenic Waltz” or “Dance of Death,” which lampooned women for their vanity and arsenic-dyed dresses.
“Killing,” which was Victorian slang for an attractive person, even took on new meaning, with the British Medical Journal remarking: “Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature. She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet within half a dozen ballrooms.” Even with these stories and commentary, some people continued to wear Scheele’s and Paris Green for years, preferring the dangers of arsenic to wearing so-called “abominable grays, hideous browns, and dreadful yellows.”
We’ve covered poisonings and fires, but that isn’t all that fatal fashion had in store for wearers, unfortunately! Celluloid, which was developed in the late nineteenth century, was a form of cheap plastic that was first touted as an affordable replacement for rarer materials like ivory. It was suddenly everywhere: in jewelry, sequins, combs, even billiards balls. Both men and women even wore detachable linen collars, cuffs, and shirt fronts that were stiffened with celluloid and conveniently waterproof. However, there was a severe problem: celluloid is highly flammable and tends to explode near heat.
There are no official statistics we can turn to, but historical records document hundreds of people who died due to combusting celluloid combs, whose proximity to someone’s face and head was particularly dangerous. In 1902, a Scottish surgeon wrote of a woman who kneeled in front of a fire and suffered severe burns as the imitation tortoise-shell comb ignited in her hair. The same paper mentions the recent case of a young girl in London whose combs caught fire in a similar manner and died the next day from her injuries. Others lost their eyesight or experienced other long lasting complications from burns. However, rather than calling for the ban on the production of celluloid (which also caused multiple factory fires), common guidance at the time simply urged wearers to keep away from flames and other heat-sources. (Yikes!)
Structural Risk, Individualized Blame
What is so interesting about many of these deaths is not just the awful symptoms or circumstances people had to endure but how so many seemed to shrug off the dangers. You might think that widespread reporting of these stories would have caused people to stop wearing mercurial hats or flammable crinolines immediately, but that often seems to be not the case.
Like our experiences during the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic, common responses often included denial of the veracity of scientific reporting or blaming individual wearers for vanity. Sadly but not shockingly, these accusations were overwhelmingly lodged at women and their “seemingly irrational desire for novelty in dress,” rather than the male producers of these beautiful yet lethal garments (Matthews David 2015). Ultimately though, fashions changed, and public health measures and regulations gradually became common practice. Clothing manufacturing is still far from safe today, but we’re at least happy to know we most likely won’t die from arsenic poisoning anymore!
1 – You might initially think corsets would qualify to be in this article, but historical corsetry is often misrepresented in contemporary media and corsets were not generally a lethal garment. If you’re interested in reading more, check out The Corseted Skeleton: A Bioarchaeology of Binding by Rebecca Gibson.
2 – Flammable crinolines were not just a problem in the UK and the US. In 1863, a fire broke out during mass in a church in Chile, resulting in approximately 2,000 deaths. Many of the dead were women wearing crinolines, which made it almost impossible to vacate quickly and acted as literal fuel for the fire.
3 – Of course, this was not always the case. As historian Alison Germsheim (1982) documents, a woman who purchased a box of arsenic-laced gloves at a “well-known and respectable house” in 1871 was horrified to find that her hands broke out in blisters after putting them on. Most likely, her sweaty palms caused the dye to run into her skin.