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Killer fashion, the dark side of our history of glamor

By Jackie Mallon

14 Jan 2020


As fashion month gets into its stride, will the industry’s dark side upstage the glamor? Will PETA stage protests outside the shows of designers still stuck on using fur? Will Extinction Rebellion make headlines emphasizing the damage our industry continues to inflict on the planet? Currently the plight of the fashion industry’s “victims” forms a critical part of runway reports. History records that the term “fashion victim” was first coined by Oscar de la Renta to describe those branded or logo-laden hypebeasts who simply must have the latest sneaker collab or wait-listed handbag. These same individuals might swooningly describe Jacquemus’s teeny Chiquito or Bottega Veneta’s Pouch as “to die for.” But fashion’s dance with death isn’t always so playful and our industry’s dark side hasn’t always been so openly addressed. Historically fashion is strewn with hidden victims, silent casualties of society’s most decadent desires.

Mad Hatters

Not simply a character in 1865’s Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, mad hatters were those who fashioned hats for respectable society gentlemen in the 1730s. Made from rabbit fur which could be transformed into felt with a dab of mercury, the hats were perfectly safe for the wearer whose chapeau interior was lined with silk and exterior coated with shellac. Not so lucky were the makers whose afflictions included shrinking gums, swollen tongues, damaged lips, convulsions and paranoia, the result of toxic poisoning.


A staple of sunglasses associated with style icons such as Jackie O, the material tortoiseshell used to be exactly as it sounds. From the underbelly of a rare sea turtle, it was transparent and durable for jewelry and accessories, reaching utmost popularity for combs decorating wealthy Victorians’ hair. Eventually it was replaced by an early plastic, celluloid, which was less dangerous to tortoises, but the tiniest flame nearby rendered the combs explosive.


In 1903 Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Marie Curie, discovered radium which became known for its miraculous curative properties. Companies rushed to put it into their products, baby’s clothing and underwear boasted of its hygienic value at the turn of the twentieth century, and watches painted with it were readable in the dark. Finally it was identified as deadly and banned from consumer goods, but factory workers who made the products, mainly women, experienced radium poisoning which attacked the bones. Their teeth fell out, jaws collapsed, until eventually death provided relief.


Arsenic, invented by chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1775, was originally used to dye garments a vivid green. However for those who worked with it, the whites of their eyes turned the same shade, they vomited the color and eventually stopped breathing. Women avoided green until in 1863 when French empress Eugénie stepped out in a safe version of the hue causing a new stampede for green.


The Kardashians’ controversial promotion of waist trimmers to achieve the ideal hourglass silhouette is nothing new. In the late sixteenth century corsets constructed with whalebone and metal were introduced to cinch women’s waists. The item also crushed fanatics’ lungs and deformed the developing bones of younger wearers.

On fire

Flannel’s association with cosiness and good health made it hugely desirable but economically prohibitive for most late Victorians, so ‘flannelette’ was created for the masses. Unfortunately it could be reduced to ash in exactly one minute and as children’s beds tended to be close to fireplaces, it was recorded that in England during one five-year period, 1,816 deaths occurred, three quarters of which were girls who wore looser garments than boys which therefore caught fire fastest.


A 2016 study in India drew attention to Long Scarf Syndrome, and the danger of six-foot-long scarves known as chunnis, popular in South Asia, getting caught in wheels of vehicles such as motorbikes. But this recalls the 1927 death of American dancer Isadora Duncan whose scarf which had been wrapped around her neck as she sped off in a convertible strangled her.


The hobble skirt was invented when the first American woman to fly in a plane, Edith Berg, realized her skirt would fly up in her face and so tied it at the knee with a piece of rope. It inspired a trend––and even the iconic shape of the Coca Cola bottle––but women wearing the so-called “speed limit skirt” could suddenly fly but not walk. A shackled attendee at a Paris horse race in 1910 was trampled by a horse when her hobble skirt prevented her from moving out of the way in time.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Images by Wikimedia Commons: Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862. Lettering: "The Arsenic Waltz" "The new Dance of Death. (Dedicated to the Green Wreath and Dress-Mongers.)"Iconographic Collections, Wellcome Images Library reference: ICV No 42815, Photo number: V0042226, http://catalogue.wellcomelibrary.org/record=b1194600; A postcard (circa 1911) depicting a man and a women dressed in the fashion of the era, uploaded to Wikimedia 6 November, 2004, by Tragicsomething, author Uncredited, currently Infrogmation, 8 June 2008. Ornamental Japanese hair pin, tortoiseshell, Edo or Taishō, Honolulu Museum of Art, author Hiart.

fashion and death
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