Drop-Dead Gorgeous: The Killer Fashion of the 19th Century

When we get up in the morning and pull on our jeans, t-shirts and jackets, we feel protected, shielded and comforted – nobody has to see our wobbly bits, phew! But throughout history, clothing and accessories have been the cause of madness, disease and even death; sometimes by accident and sometimes by design.

The most fashionable clothing in the 18th and 19th centuries was often made using chemicals that are today considered too toxic for use. Women were also walking fire-hazards. They wore wide hoop skirts, flowing cotton and tulle dresses so when they came into contact with candles, oil lamps and open fires, they could, quite literally, go up in flames. Clara Webster was a British ballerina who died in 1844 when her dress caught fire after her skirt came too close to sunken lights on stage at London’s Drury Lane theatre.

But more often than not, it was the producers of the clothing that suffered more than the wearers. As a milliner, that would have included me.

Many people associate the phrase “mad as a hatter” with Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The term actually refers to the side effects that hatmakers had to endure in their craft. In the 18th and 19th centuries, hatters used mercury to treat hare and rabbit fur so that it would stick together and form felt. Unfortunately, they would often get mercury poisoning as a result. The symptoms of mercury poisoning include mood swings, memory loss, twitch, physical tremors, loss of coordination, speech and hearing impairment and paranoia. So, you can see why people at the time thought they were “mad”. The worst thing is, the use of mercury in hatmaking was never banned. The only thing that made it disappear was that men’s hats went out of fashion in the 60’s.

In the Victorian times, arsenic was used everywhere from candles to curtains to wallpaper. One scientist also discovered that it could be mixed with another chemical to create a green dye so it was also used in dresses, gloves, shoes and artificial flowers which decorated women’s hair and clothes.

The British Medical Journal wrote that “Twenty yards, under cinoline regime, are required for the modern female dress, and twenty yards of tariatane would contain about 900 grains of white arsenic. Well may the fascinating wearer of it be called a killing creature. She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet within half a dozen ballrooms”


'Two skeletons dressed as lady and gentleman. Etching, 1862.'

Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY