The History of Hazardous Clothing, in Pictures - Atlas Obscura
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The History of Hazardous Clothing, in Pictures

What not to wear.

"The Arsenic Waltz" depicted the use of arsenic as a green pignment, from an 1862 issue of <em>Punch</em>.
"The Arsenic Waltz" depicted the use of arsenic as a green pignment, from an 1862 issue of Punch. Wellcome Library, London/Courtesy Bloomsbury

Green ball gowns tinted with arsenic. Top hats made with mercury. Flammable crinoline. These are just some of the lethal fashions covered in the book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, which details the history of death by clothing. Focusing on the mid-1700s to the 1930s, the book is an astonishing and sometimes gory account of the ways in which clothing has killed—by accident, by design, or through treacherous manufacturing conditions.

This dark history is presented alongside a series of illustrations from the era, which show just how dangerous getting dressed could be. Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from this startling and fascinating history.

A cartoon depicting the diseases a trailing skirt can collect, as death hovers close by: "Typhoid Fever! Consumption!"
A cartoon depicting the diseases a trailing skirt can collect, as death hovers close by: “Typhoid Fever! Consumption!” The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY
Half-skeletal, half-fashionable memento mori, c.1805.
Half-skeletal, half-fashionable memento mori, c.1805. Wellcome Images, London/Courtesy Bloomsbury
"The Haunted Lady, or ‘The Ghost’ in the Looking-Glass," from an 1863 issue of <em>Punch</em>. A fashionable woman looks in the mirror and sees a vision of the exhausted seamstress who died to make her clothing.
“The Haunted Lady, or ‘The Ghost’ in the Looking-Glass,” from an 1863 issue of Punch. A fashionable woman looks in the mirror and sees a vision of the exhausted seamstress who died to make her clothing. Toronto Public Library/Courtesy Bloomsbury
"'Fire': The Horrors of Crinoline and the Destruction of Human Life," c. 1860. Hoop skirts made from crinoline were popular but hazardous. Media frequently reported on them being set alight.
“‘Fire’: The Horrors of Crinoline and the Destruction of Human Life,” c. 1860. Hoop skirts made from crinoline were popular but hazardous. Media frequently reported on them being set alight. Wellcome Library, London/Courtesy Bloomsbury
Henry Tetlow’s "harmless" Swan Down Powder containing lead, c.1875–80.
Henry Tetlow’s “harmless” Swan Down Powder containing lead, c.1875–80. Emilia Dallman Howley/Courtesy Bloomsbury
Advertising postcard for Perkins Non-Flam Flannelette, "so strong'y recommended by Coroners," c. 1910.
Advertising postcard for Perkins Non-Flam Flannelette, “so strong’y recommended by Coroners,” c. 1910. Courtesy Bloomsbury
Arsenical Green Fashion Plate, 1840. The green dress was likely to have been colored using a pigment derived from arsenic.
Arsenical Green Fashion Plate, 1840. The green dress was likely to have been colored using a pigment derived from arsenic. Courtesy Bloomsbury
Chromolithograph showing the effect of arsenic used in artificial flowermaking on workers’ hands, 1859.
Chromolithograph showing the effect of arsenic used in artificial flowermaking on workers’ hands, 1859. Wellcome Library, London/Courtesy Bloomsbury
Revolving Hat, 1830. The use of mercury in hat-making persisted for over 200 years because it was not seen as a threat to the wearer, despite the damage it caused to the workers who produced the hats.
Revolving Hat, 1830. The use of mercury in hat-making persisted for over 200 years because it was not seen as a threat to the wearer, despite the damage it caused to the workers who produced the hats. Wellcome Images, London/Courtesy Bloomsbury
The cover of <em>Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present</em>.
The cover of Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. Courtesy Bloomsbury

This story was updated with minor edits on October 22, 2018.