Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: Fashion Victims

September 24, 2015

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We often use the term “fashion victim” to describe the mindessly trendy, or to allude to the low-paid workers who toil and sometimes risk their lives so we in the West can get a T-shirt for $1 less. But Fashion Victims, a new book out from Bloomsbury Visual Arts on September 24, shows us how much larger the world of fashion victims used to be: those who died from making garments and those who expired from wearing them. The next time I hear myself sighing in exasperation about seemingly overzealous consumer product regulations, the tonic might be a healthy dose of the past, as dished out by author Alison Matthews David, associate professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto. This excerpt focuses on “Dangerous Dyes: A Pretty, Deadly Rainbow.”

–Nancy McKeon

Men's Oxford boot, black patent leather and tan cloth upper, ca. 1914-1920, Bally, Switzerland. Copyright c 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto. / Photo by David Stevenson and Eva Tkaczuk.

Men’s Oxford boot, black patent leather and tan cloth upper, ca. 1914-1920, Bally, Switzerland. Copyright 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto. / Photo by David Stevenson and Eva Tkaczuk.

ON MARCH 20, 1904, a healthy young 22-year-old salesman with a “good muscular build,” who was 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, died in Toledo, Ohio. The autopsy revealed that he had bought a pair of shoes on sale several days before his death. The discount items had black patent vamps with tan cloth tops and were probably similar to these 1920s American men’s shoes in the Bata Show Museum [in Toronto]. Unsatisfied with his purchase, he dyed the light cloth tops black with liquid “blacking” purchased in Chicago to attend a “dancing party” that evening. Unbeknownst to him, the polish contained nitrobenzene, a component of “Aniline” dyes. Impatient, he put the shoes on before they were dry, staining his feet and ankles black. After the dancing party, he went to a cafe with four or five friends to knock back a few beers and some cheese and crackers. He started to feel ill, fainted, threw up, and was assisted home in a carriage. His friends thought that he was just drunk, but his roommate eventually called a doctor, who witnessed his death just before 5am, only four and a half hours after his fainting spell.

A study by the leading female industrial health expert Alica Hamilton suggests that another factor may have contributed to the salesman’s death: The action of nitrobenzene was “greatly enhanced by alcoholic drink.” Beer and shoe polish had produced a lethal chemical cocktail. Despite the severity of this case, exactly two decades later, four students at the University of Michigan were poisoned by black nitrobenzene shoe dye. One of them, George Stanford, a chemistry student, required two blood transfusions in order to survive. Authorities confiscated stocks of the dye, but this was far from the first or final case of dye poisoning from the electrifying chemical rainbow of “terrible tints” that Victorians began to bemoan by the end of the century, claiming that “even now to be found among the repertory of the leaders of fashion–agonies in red, livid horrors in green, ghastly lilacs, and monstrous mauves.”

Colour was controversial in the 19th century. Like hat shapes, the palette of fashionable FashionVictim2Webdress changed constantly even before the invention of aniline dyes in the 1850s. Colour choices were an easy way for female consumers to display their social class status and personal taste. Historically, rich, saturated colours like reds and purples were more expensive to make and reserved for the upper classes, with the working classes limited to drab, dull, or undyed cloth. The advent of cheap, bright, but often toxic chemical colours reversed that class hierarchy and led to a kind of “chromophobia.” By the late 19th century, artists like James McNeill Whistler of the British Aesthetic movement were painting elite women who orchestrated their wardrobes in subdued, harmonious colour “symphonies” of white, pastel pinks, and greys. “Tasteful” consumers followed suit and spurned saturated, almost electric colours on both aesthetic and medical grounds.

 At the International Health Exhibition in 1884, James Startin, a dermatologist from the St. John’s Hospital for Skin Diseases in London, exhibited photographs of painful skin eruptions and aniline-dyed stockings, gloves, and other incriminated garments that “have actually caused injury to the skin and have come under my personal notice in the course of my practice.” Museum artifacts like . . . Jaeger toe socks from circa 1885-1895 in the Fashion Museum in Bath [England] attest to public concern over toxic chemical colours and a new market demand for undyed or “natural” shades. Luxury retailers like Liberty of London sold textiles in a palette of “artistic” colours to cater to their elite clients. Some craft-based design firms like [William] Morris and Co. returned to natural vegetable dyes, but aniline could produce even “artistic” shades en masse in a modern laboratory, and there was no going back: The market now dictated innovations in colour chemistry aimed at new effects and lower prices.

Jaeger’s undyed woolen sock is an amusing example of “healthy dress.” We may laugh at some of the theories of the German naturalist and hygienist Gustav Jaeger, who famously lobbied against silk and cotton fabrics and believed that only undyed, natural woolen undergarments should be worn against the skin. Health fanatics like George Bernard Shaw were early customers for his products. In 1903, Gustav Jaeger devoted a whole chapter of his book “Health-Culture” to “Sanitary Colours or Dyes.” He argued that consumers should purchase (presumably his) undyed wool because there were many dangerous dyes still on the market:

The number of those who recognize the hygienic importance of sanitary dye is still not yet large enough to affect the general tendency of manufacturers who use cheap, and often unsanitary dyes. . . . To show the importance of the subject to ladies who wear coloured stockings, I may refer to a paragraph which appeared in the papers, giving a detailed account of a young lady . . . who recently made her feet sore by dancing a whole evening, notwithstanding that her shoes gave her great pain. Within a few hours her blood was found to be poisoned by the poisonous dye of her stockings having entered the wounds in her feet, and the account states that in order to save her life both feet had to be amputated.

While this passage may be considered scaremongering self-promotion, in the context of the 19th-century dye industry, Jaeger’s concerns were perhaps justified.


Victorian striped men’s stockings 1860s (two pairs on right dated 1862). / Platt Hall, Gallery of Costume, Manchester.

Jaeger’s healthy sock marketing appeared at the end of decades of public and political debate over toxic dyestuffs. More than 30 years earlier, in 1868-1869, bright red, orange, and fuchsia dyes like the ones tinting these vivid men’s socks [see right] from the 1860s caused pain, swelling, skin eruptions, and lameness in some of the people who bought them. Punch satirized the sock-poisoning incident by linking invented chemical names with the Ancient Greek myth of Hercules’s deadly shirt. It joked that modern Britons now “know what killed Hercules. The shirt of Nessus was not imbued with the poisoned blood of the Centaur. . . . No doubt that garment was one which had been dyed a brilliant red with chloroxynitric acid, dinitroaniline, or some one or other of those splendid but  deleterious compounds of aniline which in coloured socks are blistering the feet and ankles of the British Public.” Beyond the mythological analogy, these socks became symbol of the potential harm that modern industrial “progress” could wreak, even through small and seemingly unimportant consumer items. As the London Times observed in 1869, “The discovery not long since that one might be poisoned by a pair of socks” was not actually surprising. The article went on to ask: “What manufactured article in these days of high-pressure civilization can possibly be trusted if socks may be dangerous?” Many scholars take this remark to indicate shock over the scope of the problem, but the article goes on to state quite nonchalantly that

There are so many forms of accidental poisoning already known to be lying in ambush on all sides of us–in our dishes, on our walls, in the dresses, and scandal whispers, even on the blooming cheeks of ball-room beauties–that the discovery of a new social poison is of little interest to any but those whom it immediately concerns.

By the second half of the 19th century, the general public knew that “accidental poisoning” lurked in every corner. It was so common as to be almost unremarkable.

Excerpted from Fashion Victims by Alison Matthews David.. Copyright © 2015 by Alison Matthews David. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Visual Arts. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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