Deadly Victorian Fashions
by Anne Kingston
The Victorians suffered for their brilliant arsenic gowns and flammable crinolines. We’re not much better.
The “arsenic” ball gown sits on a headless dressmaker’s form in the basement archives of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum as senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, wearing cotton conservators’ gloves, expounds upon its vintage (late 1860s), its provenance (Australia), its exquisite construction—and, most relevantly, its ability to kill.
The green of the shimmering silk, now slightly faded, was one of the Victorian era’s most fashionable hues; people, mostly women, wore it even after it was widely known that the arsenic-based dye responsible for the colour could lead to horrible physical suffering and early death. When asked if the dress poses any danger still, Semmelhack pauses. “We’ve been counselled not to lick it,” she says, laughing.
The prime risk, Semmelhack explains, was for the wearer who would sweat and absorb it. But the dangers of the dye didn’t end there: They extended to a long chain of people, from factory workers to seamstresses to fellow ball-goers.
Click here to read more