Deadly Victorian Fashion

Ninoshka Alvares-Delaney

Fashion from the 18th and 19th century seems enchanting, mesmerising even when we view it in movies and pictures. However, there is a much deadly truth behind the fashion trends that were followed in that era. Many deaths that occurred can be attributed to the fashion trends of that time. You can be thankful that these fashion trends are in the past.

Corsets: The predecessor of the modern brassiere existed for a long time in history, and still continues to exist, albeit less restrictive than its Victorian counterpart. One of the most well-known historical attempts at changing a woman’s body shape was corseting of the waist to make an hourglass figure. Corset wearing was common in the 18th and 19th centuries across Europe and across different socio-economic classes. A woman would wear a corset for almost her entire life with an adult woman maintaining a waist of an average of 22 inches. Although there have been debates as to how seriously the restrictive garment affected the women’s health and bodies, it is evident that the tight lacing of the corset often restricted the wearer’s ability to breathe, causing frequent bouts of fainting and aggravated conditions like tuberculosis. It broke ribs if tied too tightly, irritated the skin, altered the spine and internal organs and weakened back and chest muscles due to being supported constantly. It caused constipation, suppressed the appetite and made it difficult for the wearer to eat a sizable meal.

Crinoline skirts: The crinoline was a hoop skirt worn under the frocks of the 19th century, intended to push the skirt out and give the wearer the appearance of big, regal hips. Made from horsehair, wood, or sometimes even steel, the crinoline was incredibly dangerous. There are accounts of women getting caught up in gusts of wind, being tossed off cliffs and getting caught in carriage wheel spokes. There are also stories of women not being able to escape from burning buildings due to the width and stiffness of their skirts. More often than not, the crinoline skirt itself was the cause of fire wherein women would lose sense of their circumference, step too close to a fire grate, and catch fire. Crinoline fires killed 3,000 women between the late 1850s and late 1860s in England. Besides the hazards these skirts posed, women also found it difficult to sit and were forced to spend a lot of time on their feet.

Arsenic green: In the 19th century Victorian era, there was a fad of wearing the colour green. Women desired a unique emerald shade that was achieved in fabric by using arsenic. Although unknown to people at that time, arsenic is extremely poisonous. Apart from dresses, it was also used in floral headdresses. Women who wore arsenic dyed dresses suffered from nausea, impaired vision and skin ulcers. However, the real sufferers were the dress manufacturers who were constantly exposed to the arsenic leading to horrible physical suffering followed by their untimely death.

Mercury hats: In the 18th and 19th century, a lot of men’s felt hats were made using hare and rabbit fur. In order to make this fur stick together to form felt, hatters brushed it with mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin. Many hatters developed mercury poisoning which was debilitating and deadly. Although the hat wearers were protected by a lining, it was the hatters that developed cardio respiratory problems, lost their teeth, and died at early ages.

Detachable starched collars: The detachable high collar was a popular men’s accessory in the 19th century Victorian era. The collars were starched to have the stiffness of cardboard. Seemingly harmless, the collar was so stiff and tight that it actually had the potential to cut off a man’s circulation, causing asphyxia or an abscess of the brain. Due to the reported deaths of these collars, they were nicknamed the ‘father killer’.

Parkesine accessories: The British inventor Alexander Parkes invented Parkesine in 1862, the mouldable material we today call plastic. It quickly came to be known as celluloid. Such early plastics were highly desirable because they allowed everything from brooches to hair combs, previously only available in expensive ivory or tortoise shell, to be made cheaply. It was even used to make collars and cuffs that could easily be cleaned. Unfortunately, parkesine is also highly flammable, as it degrades, it self-ignites, and is so explosive when exposed to fire that houses burned down.

While some fashion trends are to kill for, others can actually kill you. Is it really worth being a fashion victim?

Until next time, stay stylish!

(Writer is a fashion designer and can be followed on Instagram and Facebook @ninoshkaindia)