“Fashion Victims. The Pleasures and Perils of Dress” is an exhibition of fashion objects from the nineteenth century that demonstrates how fashion seduces while ignoring the potential harm to both wearer and maker.
Dr. Alison Matthews David (School of Fashion, Ryerson) approached her friend and colleague Elizabeth Semmelhack (Senior Curator, Bata Shoe Museum) with the idea of researching an exhibition that could be a companion to her forthcoming book, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present (Bloomsbury, September 2015). They received an SSHRC grant (Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) to fund research on issues related to toxic chemicals and the impact on makers and wearers, as well as issues of constriction within fashion. Their research took them to England and Paris, to medical libraries and chemistry labs.
Many complexities are demonstrated through the objects shown, from the very narrow, uncomfortably straight shoes which were more economical to make because they only used one last, to the celluloid combs that could provide a simple luxury by replacing endangered animal products yet also caused factory fires, putting workers at risk due to their high flammability. The popularity of arsenical green, a bright emerald hue that retained its color in artificial light is evident in shoes, dresses and wallpaper. Testing showed that even some of the objects in the exhibition were positive for arsenic. It was usually the maker who was most affected by the use of toxic chemicals yet new technologies also created a democratization of fashion by reducing the cost and making fashion more accessible to the lower classes.
Semmelhack One might imagine a glamorous woman cramming her foot into these uncomfortable hand-embroidered boots by Pinet, but we wanted the viewer to think about the women embroiderers working in poorly lit garrets who might never even be able to own the objects they were making. With the introduction of department stores consumers shifted from having things made by a visible person to going into stores and picking out things with a brand identity. With readymade goods there is no sense of labor anymore.
Avila It’s amazing how what went on in the nineteenth century parallels what is going on in today’s society. We still don’t know who makes our clothes or what chemicals are being used.
Semmelhack In the nineteenth century industrialization was not only changing and democratizing fashion, but one of the reasons Victorians were so obsessed with flowers and arsenic green was that artificial nature met the needs of this new age after the denuding of nature in the industrial landscape. As this craze for green in the middle of the century hit a high point, doctors began to notice that their upper class clients had rashes associated with arsenic and recognized connections to the seriously ill dressmakers or artificial flower workers they would see at the hospital clinic.
Matthews David The introduction of synthetic colors created a giant chemistry experiment on the public. New dyes might leach from shoes or socks worn next to skin depending on the acidic or alkaline quality of the wearer’s sweat. Doctors were seeing stripy skin burns from boldly striped red or magenta socks that continued to be popular products since not everyone was affected.
Semmelhack Women were being expected to dress in all the new invented colors while men were supposed to dress like the machinery and the factories where they acquired their wealth, so you have black stove pipe hats and pants. Bad blacks would discolor or turn yellow so a good shiny black was also a status symbol. Shoeshine boys littered the landscape because the dirty street conditions made it difficult to stay clean.
Matthews David One of the aniline by-products, nitrobenzene, was used for shoe polishes and liquid blacking. Highly toxic nitrobenzene oxidizes the iron in human blood; people were at danger, when, instead of buying a new pair of boots they dyed their old stained yellow pair black to look respectable. They often put them on before the polish dried and the toxins would be absorbed through the skin.
Semmelhack Likewise, hatters went mad from the use of mercury for felting animal hair into desirable top hats.
Avila Obviously there were people aware of many of these dangers, why didn’t concerns have more influenceon fashion?
Semmelhack In the nineteenth century there were also social movements to help the upper classes understand about animals’ rights and the plight of workers. So there was social concern at the same time that there was social injustice. Desire and economics are powerful forces. All of these chemists and entrepreneurs believed that science is better, so they put these things out on the market and then when things went wrong they blamed the consumer—‘oh she’s so vain.’ Friedrich Engels claimed that bourgeoisie women caused the most harm to the workers but who were wearing top hats? Who invented mechanical tools? Who required women to dress in an ornamented way? Those questions never came up because women who dressed like men ran into trouble—it was even illegal in some areas. Fashion drives the economy; often the greatest risk is to not follow fashion.
Matthews David Even today, how many of us would wear something that is not socially acceptable? Social pressures are often more risky than potential health risks.
“Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century” shows at the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, though June 2016. Learn more at www.batashoemuseum.com.
Susan T. Avila is a textile artist, professor and Chair of the Department of Design at the University of California, Davis. She encountered the “Fashion Victims” exhibition while researching a new body of artwork related to health and wellbeing. While Avila’s new work is aimed at using fashion to promote awareness of health, in particular women’s cardiovascular health, the number one killer of women, her visit to the Bata Shoe Museum added another dimension to how fashion has affected health over the years. She was surprised how much information is left out of most fashion history books and was especially dismayed to realize that green, her favorite color, is fraught with a scandalous past.