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The Long, Strange History of Women Wearing Deadly Clothing

Mar 7 2017 5:00 PM
The Long, Strange History of Women Wearing Deadly Clothing

Photo via Getty

In myths and fairytales, women poisoned their rivals with gaudy accessories; in the 19th century, they unknowingly wore dresses dyed with arsenic. The specific dangers may have changed, but one thing remains the same: an obsession with the link between death and fashion.

In 1995, Richard Avedon's photo series In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort was first published in the New Yorker. Ostensibly a fashion shoot, it features, as most shoots do, a model (Nadja Auermann) clothed in exquisitely designed garments. She is caught in a series of scenarios: sweeping up, posing for a camera, embracing her partner. The catch? Her partner is an actual human skeleton. He is also clothed, and his suits hang awkwardly from scapula and rib cage, a trilby tilted jauntily across the skull. As a visual narrative it's both disturbing and deeply beautiful, with flesh, bone, and fabric in close proximity. Here, life and death, quite literally, rub shoulders.

The photos also figure as a clever examination of the relationship between fashion and death, a relationship that remains continually fascinating. Clothes stay close to the skin during life, and continue to exist long after the body has decayed. No wonder we're often aware of their status—sometimes intimately, sometimes devastatingly—as memento mori.

Read more: Mark My Words: The Subversive History of Women Using Thread as Ink

But clothing's relationship with death is more complicated than that of a mere reminder or relic: Over the years, garments have also, with surprising regularity, been a cause of death, too. As art historian Alison Matthews David argues in 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."

Though the words "dangerous dressing" might immediately make one think of corseting or foot binding—both of which are often held up as powerful symbols of female restriction and physical damage incurred in the pursuit of beauty—the history of harmful garments is long and varied. David's book outlines an exhaustive number of clothing-related fatalities, ranging from long shawls strangling their wearers (a fate suffered by many, including the dancer Isadora Duncan) to high heels causing car crashes to hobble skirts, with their restrictive movement, coming with consequences ranging from the merely injurious (bruised shins) to the fatal (drowning).

"A cutting wind, or the fatal effects of tight-lacing," a satirical cartoon from around 1820 via Wikipedia

The idea of murderous clothing has been around for millennia—as early as the poisoned robes in Medea—but one of the most famous instances occurred in the 19th century: in Snow-White, as included by the Grimm brothers in their famous anthology. When the story's wicked queen, driven wild with envy, fails to kill her beautiful step-daughter with a corset laced tightly enough to suffocate, she tries another method of murder: "Then, with the art of witchcraft, which she understood, she made a poisoned comb," the story goes.

As with the actual 16th century queen Catherine De Medici, who was accused of lacing gloves with poison, the fairytale regent weaponizes accessories' proximity to skin: "She had barely stuck the comb in Snow-White's hair when the poison took effect, and the girl fell down unconscious." In the end, this doesn't work; it'll take that famed potent apple to properly hurt Snow-White. But the image is striking, and the suggestion that clothes have the capacity for harm perfectly suits this tale's exploration of vanity and an obsession with the visual.

The queen visits Snow-White and offers her some potentially fatal garments. Painting by Franz Jüttner via Wikipedia

Skip forward to the twentieth century, and there's another story—well, more of an urban legend this time—busy making the rounds in America. The folklorist Jan Harold Brunvald outlines its most common formula: "Girl wears new formal gown to dance. Several times during the evening she feels faint, has escort take her outside for fresh air. Finally she becomes really ill, dies in the restroom," he writes. "Investigation reveals that the dress has been the cause of her death. It had been used as the funeral dress for a young girl; it had been removed from the corpse before burial and returned to the store. The formaldehyde which the dress has absorbed from the corpse enters the pores of the dancing girl."

As with Snow-White, the fear (and perhaps the horror-stirring thrill) lies in the suggestion of garments being invisibly—and unpredictably—able to cause harm. These things that are meant to shield us, keep us warm, adorn our bodies, instead do the opposite.

However, as interesting as these tales are, one of the most telling examples of poisoned attire isn't reliant on malice (or a corpse's clothing), but on actual production malpractice. In Fashion Victims, David talks about how, in the late 18th century, copper arsenite became a popular pigment for dyeing clothes. Today we recognize one of those crucial ingredients—arsenic—as deadly. First dubbed Scheele's green, and later emerald, this shockingly verdant shade was lethal to those handling it, whether they were brushing it as a powder onto elaborate floral head-dresses or dyeing gloves a delectably eye-catching color.

"The Arsenic Waltz: The New Dance of Death." Illustration via National Geographic

The side effects of working with this shade ranged from sores to convulsions to, in many cases, death. The workers producing these items, most of whom were female, suffered hugely. These fatalities made headlines (including, as David notes, a striking report by Dr. A.W. Hoffman in the London Times titled "The Dance of Death"), but the dangerous working conditions were still largely ignored. Similarly, the process of hat-making—a process involving a mix of mercury and acid brushed onto animal pelts—left many makers with a horrendous range of physical and psychological symptoms (and inspired, it's been suggested, Lewis Caroll's creation of the character of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland).

Why are these examples so curious? What is it that draws us to these frankly pretty horrible stories? Is it that they're a mix of the morbid and the aesthetic: death via ball gown or a beautiful headdress more interesting than other, seemingly prosaic causes? Or are we drawn to their gendered implications—the centuries-old phenomenon whereby, as David puts it, accusations are leveled at "the female consumer's seemingly irrational desire for novelty in dress rather than male economic interests"? After all, as she continues, the medical establishment has historically been quick to blame women "for health hazards caused by larger systematic problems."

Illustration of a crinoline fire via Wikipedia

The latter certainly proves true when reading a report from the New York Times in 1858 which lamented that "an average of three deaths per week from crinolines in conflagration ought to startle the most thoughtless of the privileged sex; and to make them, at least, extraordinarily careful in their movements and behavior, if it fails... to deter them from adopting a fashion so fraught with peril." The phenomenon of crinolines catching fire was an all too real threat—claiming the lives of two of Oscar Wilde's half-sisters, Emily and Mary, among its many casualties—but it's notable that the victims were always considered at fault. Their frivolity, it was suggested, had cost them their lives.

However, as shown by the widespread bouts of mercury poisoning, deadly dress didn't just exist along gendered lines; the dangers of clothing production were felt equally by men and women of the lower class. Accounts of combs exploding at high temperatures and taking the factory with them, toxic chemicals doing everything from blackening nails to making people's teeth fall out, and voluminous skirts getting caught in machinery all point to the same thing: a longstanding culture in which garment workers suffer hugely.

In fact, when the poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi wrote a dialogue between Fashion and Death in 1824, he imagined the former telling the latter, "Our common nature and custom is to incessantly renew the world." That incessant renewal has consequences; though stories of attempted assassination through toxic accessory may be more immediately attention-catching, rummaging through the history of lethal garments reveals a history of unregulated industry, hazardous experimentation, and a world continually looking for the "new"—whatever the cost.

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