The Secret Sits

Killer Victorian Fashion

December 08, 2022 John W. Dodson Season 2 Episode 38
The Secret Sits
Killer Victorian Fashion
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Show Notes Transcript

Fashion can be uncomfortable. People wear unstable high heels, cram themselves into shapewear, rip out unwanted hairs and do many other unmentionable things to make themselves into the person they want to be.  Well, today I am going to tell you about something worse than uncomfortable shoes, today we are going to talk about Fashion that Kills.

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[Underscore Music]

Fashion can be uncomfortable. People wear unstable high heels, cram themselves into shapewear, rip out unwanted hairs and do many other unmentionable things to make themselves into the person they want to be.  Well, today I am going to tell you about something worse than uncomfortable shoes, today we are going to talk about Fashion that Kills.

[Theme Music Start]

Welcome to The Secret Sits, I’m your host John Dodson.  Join us every Thursday as we uncover the Secrets behind the world’s most fascinating true crime cases.  You can find all episodes of The Secret Sits for free on Apple Podcast, Spotify or where ever you get your podcasts.  And if you like what you are hearing, reach out to us on Instagram and Facebook @The Secret Sits Podcast or on Twitter @SecretSitsPod. Now, on with our story.

[Theme Music Play Out]

[Under Score Music]

Today, I am going to share with you some interesting historical tales surrounding the Killer fashion trends from the Victorian era.  At the end of this episode we will also be including my lovely chat with Lindsay from the podcast, Ye Olde Crime.  Lindsay does a bi-weekly segment for their show called can you crack the cramp word, which is a slang term for a difficult or obscure term.  I will tell you right now, I could not crack the cramp word.

[Music Change]

The Victorian era occurred in the United Kingdom and the British Empire from the commencement of Queen Victoria’s reign on June 20th, 1837 all the way until her death on January 22nd, 1901.  During this time in history there was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards which was led by nonconformist churches, like the Methodists and the evangelical wing of the Church of England.  The Victorian era garnered interest in a more romanticized turn towards religion, social values and the arts.  One of the focuses during this time period was on fashion and what someone’s fashion choices represented for one’s self and for others perceptions about that individual.  It seems like not much has changes since then. 

Because everyone was focused on being the most fashionable person they could be, they were willing to forgo a lot of their own personal safety when it came to their fashionable stylings.  Everything from clothing, shoes, hair accessories, hats and even wall paper could kill you, and even when people knew this, they did not care, in the Victorian Era, fashion was like a drug.

In the late 1770s, around 60 years before the Victorian Era began, a German chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele, invented a new green pigment.  Prior to this new invention, a vibrant color green was quite tricky to create on fabric.  Carl, however mixed potassium with white arsenic on a solution of copper sulfate and just like that, he invented a brand new vibrant green pigment that became all the rage. This new pigment was nicknamed Scheele’s Green, and it was later renamed Paris green.  This new green color was an overnight sensation, green was so in.  People used this pigment to color their walls, it was used in artworks, fabrics, candles, candies, food wrappers and even children’s toys.  The color green was like the cabbage patch doll craze of 1983, everyone had to have it.  In 1814, a company in Schweinfurt, Germany, called the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company made this new green dye stable enough for everyday use.  This new bold green was so bright in its color that it was quickly dubbed, Emerald Green.  During this time period, new modern gas lights where being introduced, gas lights were much brighter than their predecessor, which was simple candle light.  Now that indoor spaces could be seen with a much brighter atmosphere, women flocked to the new Emerald green color so their boldly colored dresses would stand out in the crowd.  Victorian Britain was simply being bathed in green.

Because of the chemical compound used to make this new green pigment, people soon began developing skin sores which turned into pestilent scabs and eventually led to tissue damage.  The dye also caused nausea, colic, diarrhea and relentless headaches.  But give me fashion or give me death, these men and women said, even Queen Victoria herself wore an arsenic-laced green dress.  But the medical ramifications for wearing one of these Paris or Emerald green dresses or suits did not affect the fashionable wearer quite as much as it affected the people who spent days and weeks dyeing the fabric and then working with that fabric to construct the beautiful garments that were all the rage.  Arsenical dyes and paints were also used for artificial flowers and leaves, these floral elements were then pinned onto clothing or used in hats and fascinators.   A report from the Ladies’ Sanitary Association stated that the average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people, and that is just from one hat.  The British Medical Journal wrote: “She actually carries in her skirts, poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in a half a dozen ball-rooms.”  But despite repeated warnings from doctors, scientists and even notices in the press, the Victorian population fawned over their beloved green dyes.

In 1861, a 19-year-old woman named, Matilda Scheurer was working as a silk flower maker in London.  These flowers were used in the construction of hats and headpieces, Matilda would work diligently to create realistic looking masterpieces that she would then hand paint with additional green dye.  As the fall of 1861 rolled around, Matilda had now been working with these green dyed and painted flowers for a few months, suddenly Matilda begins to grow ill, her fingernails began to turn green, next the whites of her eyes took on a green hue, and finally, Matilda began to vomit green liquid.  When Matilda is taken to a doctor, she tells him that her vision is also green, it is as if she is looking through glasses with green lenses, all of the time.  As Matilda’s doctor attempts to find a treatment for her illness, she begins to have uncontrollable convulsions, followed by a foamy substance which begins to ooze from her eyes, her mouth and her nose.  Then on November 20th, 1861, Matilda dies.  After an autopsy is performed, it is discovered that Matilda had been poisoned by a massive amount of arsenic, it had literally invaded all of her vital organs.  By the time of her passing in 1861, activists had already learned the dangers of arsenic poisoning and they were pushing to ban it from common use. Even after Matilda's much publicized death it still took years for the British government to officially prohibit the use of arsenic in dyes.  These factories continued to operate, and when they underwent inspections, the inspectors found many women facing the same fate as Matilda Scheurer, one woman kept working with the green dye until her face became one gigantic open sore.

The effects on the human body from exposure to arsenic are truly horrible.  Those who have prolonged exposure to the chemical develop scabs and sores, their hair will begin to fall out and then as their liver and kidneys begin to shut down, they begin to vomit blood.  In 1871, a lady purchased a box of green-dyed gloves from a very respectable haberdashery, after she donned her new gloves, she was quite shocked to find her hands burning and covered in blisters from wearing the gloves for just a short time.  Because the dye in the gloves was not sealed, the sweat from the woman’s hands caused the dye to run onto her hands, causing the caustic injuries.  

But the green dye was not only limited to clothing, as I previously stated.  During the Victorian Era, there were stories of infants dyeing in their nurseries after playing on their new green carpets, or after having brushed against the beautiful green wallpaper. While one foreign dignitary was visiting Buckingham Palace, he informed Queen Victoria that the green wallpaper in the Palace had made him sick.  The Queen had the wallpaper removed after his visit.  Others attempted to convince themselves that they would remain safe, so long as they did not lick the wallpaper.  This would not have been a good plan for Willie Wonka.  But these people were extremely misguided and simply, not licking the wallpaper would no way to keep them safe.  Still others told themselves that the doctors and media were simply lying, they did not believe the science, this sounds like some people I know now.  But these people were simply fooling themselves because almost every household during this time kept a jar of arsenic in their house to kill rats, they knew that the stuff was deadly.

Nut the public fought for their right to party, in green dresses, on green rugs, with green foods; and it was 1865 before regulations were put in place to regulate the conditions of factories where workers were exposed to arsenic.  Even to this day, green dye has a bad reputation amongst seamstresses.  The color is now considered bad luck by some in the fashion industry.  The Bata Shoe Museum opened an exhibit on June 18th, 2014 which was titled: Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.  This exhibit ran for two years and it featured some of the once deadly gowns.  Also included in this exhibit were over 90 artifacts including; clothing, shoes, hair accessories, advertisements, and cartoons.  

[Music Change]

Another perilous fashion trend in the Victorian Era was brought on by their large flowing skirts.  Many skirts of the time were held up by wearing large, ruffled, crinoline beneath the top layer of material.  And this fashion choice was just fine for those upper class women who led a life of leisure, but when this fashion trend was coveted by the working class, it spelled disaster for some.  You see, women of the day who had to have jobs in order to survive, also wanted to be fashionable, but these large crinoline skirts and hoop skirts of the day did not mix well with the industrialized factories that employed these women.  In one printing office, a female employee’s crinoline skirt became entangled in the mechanical printing press and it quickly dragged the girl into the machinery.  This girl narrowly escaped with her life and after this incident, the factory foreman banned long, large or draped skirts from the factory floor.

Women in the Victorian age were also always at risk of being burned alive, trapped in their fashion choices.  Crinoline skirt fires killed upwards of 3,000 women between the late 1850s and the late 1860s in England alone.  Because their skirts had grown to such a voluminous size, women would lose sense of their new larger circumference and they would stand too close to a fireplace or a simple candle, as a piece of their dry crinoline caught fire, there was almost nothing the woman could do, the oxygen trapped underneath their hoop skirts only caused the fire to grow faster and they could not escape their boned corsets and many layers of underdressing fast enough to save themselves.  Before the development of electricity, ballerinas, performing on stage, would often perish as their muslin tutus caught fire from the stage footlights, which were gas lamps with real flames; these deaths were referred to as “the holocaust of ballet girls”.  There were fire retardants available to most of these ballerinas, however; when they treated their costumes with the fire retardant, it would make their pristine white skirts look dingy and yellowed, so the ladies chose to forgo this option, often to their own peril.

[Music Change]

Although we have primarily been focusing on women’s fashions from the Victorian Era, the men were not out of the woods when it came to their Killer Fashion choices.  For the upper-class man in the Victorian Era, no outfit was complete without the perfect hat.   I know that I always fancy myself a nice bowler hat, like the one worn by my personal celebrity icon, Charlie Chaplin.  But hats in the Victorian Era were made from felt.  This felt was constructed from beaver or rabbit fur, in order to get the fur to stick together to form the finished product of felt, milliners would brush the fur with inorganic mercury.  This process was dubbed carroting, this is when the fur is removed from the pelt and then the fur is matted together into the felt.  This is when the mercuric nitrate was used to smooth out the felt and make it shiny.  After the felt went through an additional chemical process it was dried.  The treated felts then slowly released the volatile free mercury.  The milliners, or Hatters, who regularly came into contact with the vapors from the saturated felt also usually worked in confined spaces.  The practice of using mercury for hat making dates all the way back to the 17th-century, and even back then, they recognized the dangers associated with exposure to mercury.  But the Huguenots from France kept their trade secrets, secret and they brought their unique trade to England in the late 17th-centry.  During the Victorian times the hatters’ sickness became part of the everyday lexicon with phrases such as, “mad as a hatter” or “the hatters’ shakes”.  These hats were lined, and so the wearer was relatively protected from harm, but the milliner was fully exposed to the mercury. 

When mercury poisoning begins neuromotor issues begin, like trembling hands, some called this the “Danbury Shakes”.  Then the hatter’s teeth would begin to rot and fall out, as their mind would begin to drift off to places unknown, they eventually became, As Mad as a Hatter.  And finally, their hearts and lungs would begin to fail.  The use of mercury for hat making was not banned until 1941.

[Music Change]

While makeup was not new in the Victorian Era, it was somewhat of a touchy subject.  It was reported that Queen Victoria was very critical of women who adorned their flesh with makeup, she thought it vulgar and impolite, this was due to the use of makeup being associated with sex workers.  Despite this aversion from on high, by the end of the 19th-centry, makeup was very popular.  Everyone wanted to look, naturally beautiful, so they would slap on some makeup to cover unwanted acne, or a heavily freckled face.  This makeup come with a cost, however. Some face creams and cosmetics contained arsenic and lead.  The lead-based products would severely dry out the user’s skin, it would then cause the user to have extreme abdominal discomfort.  If someone ignored all of these symptoms and continued using the product, it would eventually lead to death.  It was simple, people wanted to show how purely white their skin could be, one of the most popular lead-based skin products was named: Laird’s Bloom of Youth.  In 1869, a doctor treated three young women who had been continuously using this product and all three girls had temporarily lost full use of their hands and wrists.  This doctor dubbed their condition as Lead Palsy, but today we know this as radial nerve palsy, which is commonly caused by lead poisoning.  One of these girls’ hands was so waisted away it looked like the hand of a skeleton.

As I have said, Fashion can be deadly and I want to thank you for listening to this fun story from yester years.  But now, I invite you to listen to Lindsay from Ye Olde Crime, as I try to Crack the Cramp Word.