Their tangible, material beauty helped explain why male and female consumers desired (and still desire) garments that were dangerous to their health. Despite my scholarly and scientific approach, I found myself seduced by the glossy surfaces of fur felt hats that asked to be stroked like an animal’s pelt, gorgeous emerald green dresses and elegant fringed silk shawls, fairylike tulle gowns and tutus, and elaborately carved hair combs. Even when I knew them to be full of poison, or understood that they put their wearers at risk of strangulation or a fiery death, their beauty made them alluring as well as repellent. [20]

As David explains in its opening pages, “this book focuses on the 19th and early 20th centuries in France, the United Kingdom, and North America, a period in which fashionable clothing mechanically altered the natural silhouette of the body. Elegant people put their appearance above their health, with women tottering about in high heels, wide hoop skirts, and constricting corsets, while men sweltered in heavy felt hats, tight starched collars, and narrow boots that a modern Westerner would not endure.” Her main subject, however, is the way that “‘Dame Fashion,’ the embodiment of a powerful social and economic force” (4-5), associated herself with hideously toxic chemicals and specific styles that put their wearers into grave danger.

After an introduction that summarizes each of the chapters that follow, the first chapter, “Diseased Dress,” briefly discusses two examples of the way clothing spread (or could have spread) disease — lice and infected clothing of soldiers and long Victorian women's skirts, filthy from dragging in excrement-filled streets, which might have introduced infections into the nineteenth-century household. [Compare 1868 cartoon] The following chapters discuss at much greater length Mercury poisoning among hatters, aniline and arsenic-loaded green dyes, lethal black shoe dyes, clothing that caught fire or pulled its wearers into machinery, and the continuing dangers of twenty-first century clothing. David’s main point, which continues to be valid unto the present day, is that in general the dangers associated with fashion  do far more damage to the poorly paid workers who create clothing and associated ornaments than to the people who wear it. For example, mercury compounds needed to turn rabbit pelts into men’s hats in the the age of Victoria had devastating effects on hat makers, and the brilliant arsenic green dyes had an equally fatal effect on the young women who created clothing and ornament for women. Despite the fact that David includes several photographs of Victorian hats apparently so toxic that the museums in which they now reside them keep them bagged in protective plastic, the author has to admit somewhat belatedly that there's no evidence that wearing them ever harmed anyone — and this because hats had two barriers that protected the wearer: lacquer was applied to the mercury-treated fur thus creating a barrier between it and the wearer, and the hats also had leather headbands that kept the wearer’s skin from contacting the fur.

Illustrations from the book under review. Left: Child’s arsenical green cotton dress, c. 1838-43. Museum of London. Middle: Chromolithograph showing effects of arsenic used in artificial flowermaking on workers’ hands. 1859. Wellcome Library, London. Right: Dress dyed with Perkin’s mauve. Science Museum, London. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

As this example might suggest, David’s well-written and beautifully designed and illustrated book, which presents one sensational example after another, occasionally tries a little too hard, forcing the issue and needlessly weakening her intrinsically powerful arguments and examples. Thus, in the middle of explaining the use and terrible effects of arsenic-based dyes, she ineffectively introduces Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” whose narrative not only is irrelevant to her discussion and but actually goes in a completely different direction. (Rossetti’s character is not fatally poisoned by the fruits of the goblin men but begins to waste away because she desires to eat more of them — until sisterhood saves her.) Similarly, after introducing Perkin’s invention of mauve, which seems to have had no ill effects whatsoever, she quotes a satiric Punch article that compares the rapidly increasing popularity of the new color to the spread of measles — today we might say it went “viral” — and accompanies that discussion with a photograph of someone grossly afflicted with measles (109). Her following discussion of the dangers of poisonous aniline dyes is important, powerful, and convincing enough so that she hardly needs to distract us from her main points.

In the course of guiding us through her chamber of horrors, she presents many interesting facts and draws many important conclusions. We learn, for example, that both Victorian men and women often dressed in garments of surprisingly bright, even gaudy colors, and we also encounter the dangers of crinolines, hoopskirts, tulle, and celluloid hair ornaments. We also learn that nitrobenzene used in shoe blacking products could kill the man who used them, and that anthrax, “known as woolsorter’s disease,” killed 50% of those infected with it, and “during World War I, many British and American soldiers, as well as male civilians, contracted it from infected shaving brushes, particularly those made from imported Asian horsehair dyed to look like expensive badger hair. A small nick while shaving . . . could be lethal” (63). David also explains the relations of gender and danger both in the clothing worn by young children and adults:

Women’s more flamboyant fashions put them at greater risk than their male counterparts. Accidents are gendered, and as domestic, urban, and industrial environments changed, women’s styles did not keep pace and, in some cases, even deliberately flaunted the dangers. Historically, the design of men’s clothing and footwear has acknowledged their power and place in the public sphere and assured their mobility and safety. By contrast, women’s shoes have privileged fashion over function. Unsurprisingly, stylish platforms and towering stilettoes have long been implicated in a range of accidents, including falls and difficulty in operating machinery. [12]

David correctly reminds us that “the medical professions have encouraged our cultural bias toward blaming women for health hazards caused by systemic problems” (9), but in the course of doing so she plays the victimization card a little more forcefully than her own evidence suggests, pointing out that both the Victorian press and medical profession “constantly broadcast the ways in which fashion harmed women with articles on ‘fashionable Suicide’ and “Death in the Workshop’” (9) as if these were either false or bad things to emphasize. In a following sentence she seems to deny that constricting corsets that women chose to wear were harmful to health, and — more important — she seems to deny what she elsewhere argues, — namely, that women willingly followed fashions that hurt themselves and the poor men and women who sometimes died creating them. This pseudo-feminist point seems to be that she can criticize Victorian women, but men, particularly Victorian men, cannot. Nonetheless, although the author occasionally gets in her own way, these are but minor flaws in a fascinating, often powerful book, one that reminds us that

Cloth shields us from the elements, comforts us, and preserves our modesty. It is our lifelong companion, from the blankets that swaddle us as babies to the shrouds that accompany some of us to the grave. As this book will show, though, clothing, which is supposed to shield our fragile, yielding flesh from danger, often fails spectacularly in this important task, killing its wearers. Extreme styles have often been more dangerous, and yet the most banal everyday garments, including socks, shirts, skirts, and even flannelette pyjamas, have harmed us.

The Arsenic Waltz from the 1862 Punch.

Satirical views of fashion — the danger and inconvenience of crinolines


David, Alison Matthews. Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Last modified 19 November 2015