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Retro Fails: Killer Clothing, Inconvenient Apparel and Fatal Fashion Trends
By Debra Kelly,
Urban Ghosts Media, 16 May 2015.

Some people will do anything to look good. For centuries, staying in vogue at the top of the fashion world has been of the utmost importance to a certain type of person, and those types of people will often go out of their way in order to be trendsetters - or to follow along with them. Sometimes, though, fashion trends take hold before their potential danger is fully realized, and in these cases, staying trendy can be dangerous - sometimes even deadly.

9. The Muslin Disease

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Muslin is thin, lightweight material, and some of the earliest European writings referring to it describe it best. Traveller Edward Baines, a merchant who had spent time in India, talked about the fine quality of their muslin. It was so thin and delicate that it was almost transparent, used for shifts and shawls tailored to the hot climate. It was also, of course, worn by the nation’s dancing girls, and it wasn’t long before it was all the rage in Europe.

Fine muslin was soon imported to England, and was so lucrative that merchants decided to cut the East India Company out of the trade and manufacture it themselves. Producing the fabric was delicate work, but by the end of the 18th century, Britain was turning out its own fine muslin.

This in turn made it far more accessible to Europe, and it wasn’t long before muslin was the fabric of choice for all ladies who could afford such fine clothes. The trend followed petticoats and heavy skirts, and it wasn’t uncommon for noble women facing execution to wear their finest garments to the guillotine. Others wanted to distance themselves from such trends, and so muslin became the thing to wear.

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Unfortunately, Europe’s climate is rather more cool than India’s, and the thin, lightweight fabric designed for the hottest days of India didn’t translate well to the cold, damp winters of Europe. Between about 1800 to 1817, the huge upswing in the popularity of muslin correlated with a significant increase in the instances of pneumonia and flu. In 1803, a pneumonia epidemic swept through Paris, with doctors documenting around 60,000 new cases every day. Pneumonia became known as the muslin disease, made all the more severe by the way European women chose to wear their muslin dresses.

In Paris, wearing damp muslin was preferable to dry muslin. Not only did it render it almost transparent, it also hearkened back to the look of marble and classical art; women wanted nothing less than to be looked upon as though they were a classical beauty, and it quickly turned into an epidemic.

8. Hobble Skirts

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Image: via Wikipedia

Fashions tend to be aptly named, and there’s arguably no more aptly named fashion than the hobble skirt. While there are no records of outright deaths caused by this turn-of-the-century fashion trend, there were many falls and subsequent broken bones as a result of them.

The hobble skirt did just that - it was basically a skin-tight garment that forced women to walk with tiny, tiny strides. We’re not quite sure who invented the idea, but it’s generally associated with French designer Paul Poiret. Poiret was trying to get away from more heavy-weight Victorian fashions, and created the early hobble skirt as an alternative. (The Wright Brothers, too, made a claim for credit, claiming they had tied down an early passenger’s rebellious skirt to preserve her modesty, and launched a new fashion trend in the process.)

There were two reactions to the hobble skirt, and it was definitely a love or hate thing. Surprisingly, many older women (who were, presumably, beyond the point of needing to stay trendy), thought the skin-tight garment wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it would force women to behave – and walk – in a much more feminine manner.

Pretty much everyone else thought it was ridiculous, save those that were wearing them. The irony of the skin-tight skirts becoming a trend just when women were rallying for equal rights and the right to vote wasn’t missed, leading one New York Times editor to comment: “If women want to run for Governor, they ought to be able to run for a car…the lack of logic that the sex can be counted on to display, they have chosen a trammelled figure and shackled ankles when they need most to have them free in the strenuous race for equality.”

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Image: via Paul Townsend

Editorial cartoons poked fun at the helplessness of a woman in a hobble skirt, and the most basic of tasks - like getting into a cab or train car - became such a hassle that manufacturers soon had to re-design cars with lower entrances to be accessible to women wearing hobble skirts.

Not surprisingly, the hobble skirt fad didn’t last long. It had only been in vogue for a few decades when World War One began, and proved completely impractical for women who needed to pick up work where their men left off.

7. The Mad Hatters

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The idea of being as “mad as a hatter” was coined in the 1830s, and immortalized by Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland. The effects of mercury use in hat-making were very real, though, and in some places, it’s still being felt today.

The process of hat-making is a surprising complicated one. The first step is making the felt, and in order to do that, hatters needed to remove the fur. One of the easiest - though not the safest - methods was called carroting, so named because the fur would turn an orange colour and shrink, which made it easier to remove. Before that, camel urine was used in the same process; and if you thought camel urine to be an odd substance to obtain in the UK, you’d be absolutely right. In some cases, hatters who couldn’t get hold of camel urine used their own, and it was this replacement that gradually led to the use of mercury.

One unnamed urine donor was found to be producing felt of a superior quality. When this was investigated, it was found that he was being treated for syphilis - with mercury. The mercury would pass through his system and ultimately help produce top-quality felt, so the middle-man was quite literally removed from the equation and hatters began using mercury.

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Image: John Tenniel

The use of mercury for hat-making wasn’t banned until the outbreak of World War Two, and even then, it wasn’t done for health reasons. Mercury, a key component in detonators, was needed for the war effort. In fact, its effects are still being felt today. Testing of the soil around Connecticut hat-making factories continues to find high mercury contamination which, in turn, drains into the marshes and rivers nearby.

With the possibility of storms and hurricanes, there’s also a chance the mercury will find its way into the food chain. And mercury is brutal in its impact on living organisms. Hatters suffered from mental instability and irrationality, along with uncontrollable tremors. Autopsies carried out on hatters revealed mercury poisoning so severe, that holes had been eaten through their brains.

6. Arsenic Dresses

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Image: Bazar of Fashions; illustration purposes only

We’ve talked before about the origins of history’s most vibrant colours - the dyes that were deadly, the paintings that were done with pieces of the dead, the colours that people killed for. But when those deadly dyes are used in clothing, the results can be predictably heart-breaking.

Arsenic and copper were historically combined to make dyes and pigments, long before we knew what effect arsenic had on the human body. Arsenic dresses are a strange sort of green, and today, chemical analysis can confirm the presence of arsenic remains, even though most such dresses are at least a century and a half old.

They were incredibly popular, too; because of the way the colour was made - it was a pigment rather than a traditional dye - it didn’t fade from wear and washing like other hues. And colour was popular in its own right in the middle of the 19th century, especially in cities. Industry was thriving, the streets were becoming ever dirtier, soot and smoke filled the air and coated everything…therefore, a brightly coloured dress or other piece of clothing was a welcome respite from the dismal gloom of cities.

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Image: William Powell Frith; illustration purposes only

But it wasn’t long before the ill effects of these dresses took their toll on those who were wearing them and making them. Those who wore the arsenic dresses initially suffered little more than rashes and irritated skin. Prolonged exposure might lead women to develop respiratory or even digestive problems. And in some cases, it wasn’t just the arsenic green dresses that were coloured with the deadly poison. While green was the colour women were warned about - and such dresses were soon featured by cartoon skeletons - arsenic could creep into red and brown dyes, too.

Those who worked with such pigments typically suffered from a lifetime of chronic illness, and many weavers and dyers died young. Alarmingly, an 1883 report by the Massachusetts State Board of Health, Lunacy and Charity, noted that the dangerous cloth was also being used for purposes other than clothing - including as a coating for food eaten outside at picnics, church events and bake sales.

5. Wigs and Syphilis

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Image: Hyacinthe Rigaud; Louis XIV

We’re not suggesting that wigs cause syphilis, but the connection between the two is too fascinating not to mention in a list about deadly fashions and killer clothing.

Perhaps the most famous of history’s wigs are those worn - and inspired by - France’s Louis XIV. While the masses wanting to emulate royalty isn’t new, there are a couple of different explanations for why he was wearing wigs in the first place. One version holds that Louis, who was going bald by the time he was 17, thought it was completely inappropriate for a king to be losing his hair. Hence, wigs.

There’s another version, though, that suggests his hair loss wasn’t quite as natural. Hair loss is a symptom of syphilis, and it’s been suggested that the encroaching baldness of both Louis XIV and his cousin, Charles II, and their wig-wearing habits were due in large part to the symptoms of syphilis.

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Image: Jean Clouet

Either way, wigs became a sign of wealth - they weren’t cheap, after all, and only the wealthy could afford them. But the idea of syphilis certainly wasn’t a popular one, and several tall tales were told to explain why royalty was turning not only to wigs, but hats as well.

One story claims that France’s King Francis I was enjoying an innocent day out at one of his castles when a torch came loose from the wall. The torch fell on his head, burned away his hair and, from then on, he wore hats. Another version of the story, however, involved syphilis caught from a married mistress, with the added suggestion that her husband had contracted the sexually transmitted disease knowingly to pass it along first to her and then the king.

4. Steel Cages and Crinoline

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According to guidelines published in 1856, the standard, acceptable size for a ladies’ steel cage-supported crinoline skirt was six feet across. The cages were typically made of flexible steel to allow for women to do accomplish basic tasks like getting through doorways, but aside from that, it’s hardly surprising that they had a tendency to catch fire.

It sounds like an urban legend, but it’s absolutely not. Fire-related deaths from crinoline skirts weren’t uncommon. In December of 1858, Lady Lucy Bridgman and her sister were both killed in a skirt fire, with other members of the family suffering severe burns as they attempted to save the women. Adding insult to injury, the skirts weren’t as unconditionally popular as we tend to think - they were commonly mocked for their absolute impracticality, and in one epic Punch cartoon, it’s suggested that men who were worried about being garrotted should wear the skirts, too.

The danger was obvious pretty early on in the career of the crinoline skirt, so it’s surprising the dangerous trend lasted as long as it did. The steel cages were seen as lightweight alternatives to multiple layers of petticoats and skirts to get the same flowing effect, which was worn not only as a fashion statement, but as a statement of status. There’s not much that you can practically do while wearing a birdcage, and that was the point - the women who did wear them were making it known that they would never need to engage in the manual labour undertaken by the common people.

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Over the years came several attempts to make the style more practical. In 1856, a patent was issued for inflatable crinoline that could, theoretically, be inflated and deflated on demand. It was a better idea on paper than in practice, though, as even with the help of bellows, ladies - or, more accurately, ladies’ maids - were looking at about a three-hour time investment for full inflation.

However, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the history of the crinoline has been at least somewhat clouded by satirists taking aim at the women who wore them, not entirely for the impracticality of their clothing, but for what they stood for. And, the museums stresses, while accidents did occur and deaths were documented, it was a strangely liberating departure from the heavy layers of earlier times.

3. Feathers and Bird-Adorned Hats

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On both sides of the Atlantic, a well-dressed woman in the 1880s didn’t consider her outfit complete without a feathered hat. Sometimes there were taxidermy birds or even entire nests full of eggs. Though these hats weren’t necessarily deadly to those who sported them, they were certainly dangerous for the birds that gave up their feathers.

You may not think that birds needed to be killed just for the sake of a few features, but the demand was so high that that’s exactly what happened. Picking up a few shed feathers off the ground wasn’t going to supply the ever-increasing demand, so the hat industry literally decimated entire colonies of birds in order to keep women’s heads properly adorned.

The bigger the hat and the more exotic the feathers, the better. So when ornithologist Frank Chapman took a stroll through New York City one February afternoon in 1886, he spotted 174 different types of birds - or, more accurately, what was left of them.

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Image: via CharmaineZoe

Bird populations plummeted as feathers fuelled what became the fourth largest industry to employ women in Britain. Some birds - like the bittern - even became extinct from the UK. It wasn’t just the adult birds that died, either. Feathers are at their brightest and most vibrant during the breeding season, and the persecution of adults condemned their offspring to death too, as chicks were unable to survive without their parents.

The result was the Anti-Plumage movement, supported by naturalists like Teddy Roosevelt and organizations like the American Museum of Natural History. By 1900, the United States was passing laws outlawing the hunting of native bird populations, and soon after European royalty began denouncing the wearing of features, effectively putting an end to the fashion once and for all.

2. Chopines

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During the 16th century, chopines were all the rage. They weren’t just footwear, either. They were a complicated display of wealth and status - and there are a handful of misconceptions that have grown up around them.

Perhaps best described as platform shoes, chopines were a strange combination of shoes and stilts - not to mention the source of both inconvenience and twisted ankles - or worse. Some of the tallest chopines still around are about 20 inches tall, though they range in height from just a few inches. Originally a Moorish fashion, the look spread first to Spain and then to Italy. The platform shoes were most popular in Venice, and were worn for a variety of reasons.

In Spain, for instance, women liked to show off their shoes, which were highly decorated and made from the finest of materials - and that’s where our major misconception comes in. It’s often repeated that tall shoes were worn to keep clothing out of the mud and muck of the streets, but that wasn’t the case in Spain. There, since women’s clothing was often covered with a long, black mantle, the shoes were generally visible, and were thus made from luxury materials.

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In Venice, though, the chopine was very different, allowing women to increase the length of their skirts, which were worn over their shoes. It was skirts that were made from valuable materials, and the longer the skirt, the more affluent the wearer. Those wearing them weren’t doing so every day, either. Such people spent most of their time indoors, so a walk through the streets on their chopines was nothing short of a parade.

Some women were able to walk and even dance on chopines, but usually only the short ones. Walking on tall chopines was an accident waiting to happen. Those women who were lucky - or unlucky - enough to be able to afford them often stepped out with attendants, tasked with keeping their path clear and ensuring that they didn’t fall over.

1. Corsets

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No article about deadly clothing would be complete without the corset. But before there are protests, we’re looking at both sides of the argument. When it comes to ill effects on the body, few articles of clothing have been as hotly debated as the corset, which were in vogue during the 19th century for the purpose of giving women an ideal shape. Often made with steel or whalebone, the drama that surrounded them was certainly compelling.

In 1848, J. L. Comstock, M.D., wrote an entire book dedicated to the corset. According to Comstock, the constant, daily wearing of corsets rearranged internal organs, reformed rib-cages, and led to all sorts of problems, like an inability to bear healthy children. The illustrations in his book were terrifying. He even suggested that those who insisted on wearing corsets were doing nothing short of committing suicide - and would quite literally burn in hell for it.

Comstock also blamed corsets for making it more difficult for women to recover from illnesses, and inflicting other chronic conditions like curved spines and distorted shoulders. He also claimed corsets were likely to cause miscarriages - and bizarrely, it wasn’t unheard of for heavily pregnant women to continue to wear corsets in an attempt to retain their figure.

Nowadays it’s understood that many doctors disapproved of the corset not necessarily because of its perceived medical dangers, but because of its sexual symbolism, and association with lewd jokes and cartoons. But there are several chronic conditions associated with corset-wearing, including skin irritations, decreased lung capacity and an increased likelihood of fainting.

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Image: via Wikipedia

Alterations to the shape of the rib cage have also been documented, although the idea that women would undergo surgical procedures to remove rows of ribs is a long-standing urban legend. And while historians - who have examined the skeletons of women who wore corsets regularly - have demonstrated a shift in organs, they liken such changes to modern practices like stomach stapling. Internal organs were affected, certainly, but arguably to the extent often imagined.

While corsets will most likely remain one of the most debated items of clothing, historical or modern, there’s at least one death that can definitely be blamed on a corset. On October 29, 1903, a woman from Niagara Falls, New York named Mary Halliday was killed when several lengths of steel boning punctured her heart. First described as a “strange attack,” it was later found that the two nine-inch pieces of corset steel were to blame for her untimely demise.

[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]

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