Victorian fashion continues to amaze with its’ macabre overtones: while we’re all familiar with the Mourning rituals of the era and the long term perils of tight-laced corsets, now we can add arsenic poisoning to the list.
Both the wearer and the maker of many Victorian garments were at risk: from prolonged arsenic and mercury exposure to deformation and poisoning, fashion was fraught with potentially lethal side effects. From the era’s uncomfortable and restrictive shoes (a trend that has lasted to modern day), corset wear, and the first synthetic dyes, Victorians were at the mercy of their own fashionable demands. One of these included the newly introduced Emerald Green dye, a brilliant color not previously achievable synthetically. By mixing arsenic and copper, this lovely but highly toxic pigment was manufactured for use in garments, wallpaper, and paintings. Despite the risks, the dye was extremely popular, and many were exposed to its toxins.
Mercury poisoning was also a common ailment, especially for those working in factories making felt. These factories used mercury in their production, and most hats of the era were made of felt. Factory workers were exposed daily to the metal, which would eventually cause mercury poisoning (Mad Hatter’s syndrome) and dementia in some. The term “Mad as a Hatter” isn’t just a character from Alice in Wonderland, it’s a direct reference to these victims.
The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto currently has a long term exhibit up of the dangers of the age, Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century, running until June of 2016.