Think of a fashion victim, and you probably imagine a harried woman laden with many shopping bags. But for historian Alison Matthews David, the phrase has far darker implications. In her new book of that title, the Ryerson University professor examines the many ways in which clothing can threaten the lives of its wearers — and its makers. She spoke to the Cut about mercury-laden hats, deadly scarves, and why she thinks fashion has only gotten more dangerous in the 21st century.
This is an unusual topic for a book, to say the least. What made you want to write about it?
I used to teach in the U.K. We would go on field trips to Manchester, where the cotton industry started. We went on tours and it hit me for the first time — the physical harm that the clothing industry did to both the makers and the people who wore it. I thought there were some stories that hadn’t been told about how fashion hadn’t just harmed the female consumer. Usually that’s the stereotype of the fashion victim: “Oh, why is she buying those high-heeled shoes? She’s so silly.” But this idea of fashion causing physical harm wasn’t just women mechanically constraining their bodies to achieve a beauty ideal. It’s men, women, children. It’s the people who make clothing, not just the people who wear it.
One of the most dangerous things for men were hats that contained mercury in the 19th century.
When I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to look at surviving hats, you couldn’t touch them. They were in Mylar bags because they still contain mercury. The hatters were brushing this mercury solution onto the fur [on the hats], and they were breathing it in. It was just entering their bodies and it was polluting the environment, too, not just the hatters. They think that 40,000 people were poisoned in Paris just from the mercury released from hatting in the 1820s. In Connecticut, there’s still mercury that goes into Long Island Sound from the 19th-century factories.
You also have a whole chapter about arsenic in fabrics.
It produced a particularly bright, beautiful emerald color. You couldn’t go out of the house without a hat, and if you wanted to look very fashionable at the ball, you would wear a green dress with an artificial-flower hair wreath, and you’d look amazing but the consequence of that was that the people making the flowers were often young girls and women, who were dusting these leaves with a green powder that contains a lot of arsenic.
There are also garments that didn’t contain anything toxic, but which caused accidents. For example, super-high platforms, or the hobble skirt, or even long scarves — notably, Isadora Duncan’s scarf. [Ed note: The choreographer died after her scarf was caught in the door of her car in 1927.]
The fashion, when gas lighting came in, was to wear these light, airy fabrics both on the stage and in the evening. Women were expected to be white-clad angels in the house. But they weren’t so great in an environment that’s heated and lit by candlelight, fires, coal, or gas lamps.
Women [began] wearing these fashions that aren’t so practical for this modern world, including Isadora Duncan with her long, beautiful shawl, which looks great onstage but not practical in a fast-moving automobile, right? They even redesigned the Broadway streetcars in New York — they had hobble-skirt cars. Women used to have to step up 19 inches to get into the streetcars, so they designed streetcars with low doors in the middle so that the women could get on.
In the cases of the mercury and arsenic, these were things that were unwitting and people didn’t necessarily know the ingredients. But then with things like the hobble skirt or a very high platform, people are wearing them knowing that they could cause injury or that they could be dangerous. Why do you think people are still drawn to those things?
I think the tendency is just to say that women — and it’s usually women — are stupid. They’re just following fashion, but if we think about following fashion, there’s a social contract [that penalizes you] if you’re not following that fashion. Something like the crinoline that was known to be a fire hazard, everyone wore them, from princesses to cooks. Why would a cook wear, in the kitchen, something flammable? Something that would increase the size of her body? [But] if you didn’t wear one you were considered a prostitute. It was considered very problematic not to. It reflected on your morals, your social status. Only the very poorest people would not have worn them. So if you don’t follow it, you risk social ostracism.
One of the things that surprised me the most is you were saying that you actually think that things are more unsafe now than they were in terms of manufacturing.
Because of globalization, we don’t know what condition things are produced in. We don’t see the workshop where the denim is sand-blasted and gives silicosis to the workers. It used to be in Turkey, now it’s in Bangladesh because it wasn’t allowed in Turkey, so there’s even less traceability or accountability because we don’t have that human contact with the people making our fashion.
We always think of fashion in terms of visual harm — the skinny model and the psychological harm of the beauty ideal. That’s obviously very harmful, but we also come into physical contact [with toxins].
Do you think there’s a counterintuitive way in which people are still drawn to things that look dangerous? I think back to Alexander McQueen’s designs where he had chopines and hobble skirts — he was drawn to constricting garments.
Yes, he was hearkening back to this idea of fashion and death being linked. In 1827 this Romantic poet wrote a dialogue between fashion and death. Fashion talks to death and says, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m your sister.” There’s this idea of the deathly power of fashion and it comes out in amazing designers’ work.
What do you think are some of the most dangerous pieces of fashion now?
I think largely consumers are less willing to wear something dangerous now than they used to be, whereas the danger still disproportionately falls onto the maker, to the people producing our clothing. I still think fashion should be beautiful, but what if it were beautiful for the people making it, for the people selling it, for the people wearing it?
This interview has been edited and condensed.