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Deadly Victorian Fashions Spotlighted at Toronto's Bata Museum

Dying to look good takes on new historical meaning in Bata Shoe Museum's latest exhibit.

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TORONTO — Much like their 21st-century counterparts, fashion followers of the 19th century were eager to look good. The Victorians, however, suffered for their fashion in some surprisingly deadly ways.


Arsenic gowns, flammable crinolines and gentlemen’s hats laced with mercury are among the highlights of “Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century,” the latest exhibition to open at the Bata Shoe Museum here. On display until June 2016, the show’s 90 artifacts — including clothes, shoes, hair accessories, staged tableaux, advertisements and cartoons — are a glossy reminder of a time when aristocrats sat for portraits and graced stately ballrooms in their brilliantly hued gowns, elegant black coats and tall, shiny boots. But “Fashion Victims” also raises serious questions about the mores of the era and the lengths to which the Victorian elite went to look fashionable.


“During the Industrial Revolution, the rich willingly risked their own health and the safety of countless factory workers, seamstresses and shoeshine boys to follow the latest trends,” said exhibition co-curator Dr. Alison Matthews David, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Fashion.


These dangers, both to the wearer and maker of 19th-century fashions, were found in the skin-irritating mauve dyes made with toxic coal tar sludge and in the “arsenic” green that was adored by Victorian women.


“Mixing arsenic with copper created this lustrous green hue. People wore it even though it was widely known that the dye was dangerous and could cause terrible physical suffering and early death,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, “Fashion Victims” co-curator and senior curator at the Bata museum.


These perils were also reflected in the gleam of rich men’s boots, which were polished by shoeshine boys using waxes containing carcinogenic nitrobenzene, and in aristocratic top hats that were steamed into shape using mercury. “Workers inhaled this dangerous steam, which made their limbs tremble and their teeth fall out,” said Matthews David.


Even the airy crinolines under a rich woman’s skirt were responsible for 3,000 documented cases of fire death in England between the late 1850s and 1860s. They occurred as a result of women stepping too close to fire grates.


“Our biggest hope is that audiences will realize that dressing fashionably in the Victorian era was a complicated and nuanced thing,” said Semmelhack. “It took the poor factory worker working with toxic substances to make society’s elite look shiny to the world.”