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The nineteenth century may have seen the grim and grimy Industrial Age take hold of Britain and other industrial nations, painting the world grey as it went, but it was also a time when vibrant colour blossomed, and the fashion industry thrived, unchecked by government regulation.

Fashion plate from Godey’s Ladies Book 1839.

In earlier centuries the fashion conscious had had to make do with traditional animal and mineral dyes which were expensive and involved a complex dying process, as well as (Quelle Horreur!) not holding their colour. Colours such as green were especially hard to create, and required a compound of blue and yellow dyes; while the best quality men’s hats were made from very expensive beaver fur.  Clothing and hat manufacture was often a small scale, artisanal process, and fashion was usually affordable only to wealthier section of society. But in the nineteenth century new chemical and industrial processes began bring fashion to a wider audience.

A Victorian Soiree, possibly American. Source unknown.

Tiger Feet

Stripy socks c1850. The Met Museum.

One of the more noticeable trends of the nineteenth century, and one that all classes could easily participate in, was colourful socks.  Stripes and checks in a plethora of colours became all the rage.  Fuschine and Coraline striped socks created ‘rainbow spanned ankles’ according to the Lady’s Newspaper in 1861.  But such glorious footware was not for everyone, soon reports came in of terrible reactions – one member of parliament was laid up for months because of ‘painful eruptions of the feet’; while an unfortunate Frenchman, proud owner of a pair of British socks in bright red, suffered ‘pustulent, inflamed feet and ankles with acute and painful eczema in red transverse stripes’. [1]  In the case of the unfortunate Frenchman, the cause was the Fuschine dye, aggravated by the socks having  been worn, unwashed, directly on the skin for a stupendous 12 days in a row! Similar reactions were reported in 1871, when a pair of prized purple and yellow socks  left a gentleman’s feet resembling ‘an inflammatory tiger’ [2].

The British Sock trade was a thriving industry and although the Lancet and other journals did report on the phenomena, and some factories returned to more natural dying processes, manufacturers were largely unreceptive to the dangers.

Red, orange and purple dyes seemed to be the most inflammatory, but not everyone was affected.  Studies by William Crookes in 1868, eventually discovered that certain factors increased a person’s risk of chemical burns from these ‘chromatic torpedoes’, these were:

Cotton-silk socks, mid 19C. Met Museum.

  • Not washing them before wearing
  • Heat – the dye could leech from silk or cotton sock to the skin
  • Wearing wool socks in very tight, hot shoes in summer increased risk
  • Individual sweat chemistry

The impact on some sock-wearers may have been bad, but the impact on workers in sock factories was dire. In 1868 Crookes found that workers using a new orange dye, mixed with magenta, often had to give up work after only six months.  They  were debilitated by the corrosive effect of the dye, which left their arms covered in open sores.  [3]

My Chemical Romance

Mid 19C green dress. Bowes Museum. Lenora.

It was a pharmaceutrical chemist called Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) who began the revolution in colour.  In 1778 Scheele developed a brilliant green pigment, known as Scheele’s or Schloss Green.  Scheele created the pigment from copper arsenite or acidic copper arsenite.  Scheele’s Green was later improved and superseded by a slightly more stable pigment called Paris or Emerald Green.[4]  It was a huge success, green, formerly a most illusive colour to capture, was soon to be found everywhere: from wallpaper, candles, children’s toys and of course, fashionable garments and accessories.  As Alison Matthews David points out, in her excellent and thought provoking book Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, one of the things that made Scheele’s and Emerald Green so fashionable was that the vibrant chemical pigment looked good in both daylight, and by gaslight.

However, this green revolution was not without it’s victims.  The pigment was made from arsenic and while arsenic was available over the counter for much of the nineteenth century, and used for many household chores, it’s toxicity was not unknown. As a small indicator of how toxic it could be, Wikipedia reports that it was used as an insecticide until the 1930’s.  Newspapers reported on the toxicity of the emerald green and tarlatane gowns worn by fashionable young ladies. Dr AW Hoffman, writing in the London Times in February 1862, reported that ‘[..] green tarletanes so much of late in vogue for ball dresses’ contained half their weight in arsenic. Matthews David calculated that a 20 yard gown could contain up to 900 grains of arsenic – while mere five grains is usually lethal to an adult. Public outrage at the ladies wearing these fashions intensified, in 1862 the British Medical Journal wrote:

‘Well may the fascinating wearer of it [green] be called a killing creature.  She actually carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.’ 

The Arsenic Waltz, Punch Magazine, 1862. Wellcome Collection.

Foliate head-dresses were also very popular at this time, bringing nature and greenery into the dull drab Victorian cities. Ladies often adorned their hair with nymph-like wreaths and artificial flowers.  Hoffman’s report in the Times concluded that each headdress contained enough poison to kill twenty people.

Soon the plight of poisoned garment workers became headline news. While fashionable green-clad ladies might suffer from occasional rashes or allergic reactions on their decolete or hands from from wearing green gowns and gloves, for the most, they were separated from the poisonous fabric by petticoats and lining materials.  Flowermakers on the other hand, had no such protections.  Often pressing the pigment, in the form of coloured dust, into the fabric, they inhaled the white arsenic on a daily basis and suffered terrible sometimes fatal consequences.[5]

Fleur du Mal – foliate Headdresses, mid 19C. Ryerson Ca.

In November 1861, Matilda Scheurer died an agonising and colourful death. She was nineteen and worked ‘fluffing’ artificial leaves with green powder.  Breathing it in and eating it with her food on a daily basis.  She suffered convulsions, vomited green water from the mouth nose and eyes, the whites of her eyes went green and it affected her vision in that she reported that everything looked green.  After much suffering she eventually died.[6]

Other workers suffered from bleeding sores on their hands and faces, and had their vision severely affected.

Effects of green arsenic. 1859. Wellcome Collection.

The Press, Ladies Societies, and various medical reports began to turn the tide against the green pigment.  Despite fashionable ladies often being treated as the villains of the piece, it is important to remember that societies such as the Ladies Sanitary Association did a lot to help raise awareness of the dangers of green. French Studies also provided evidence of the danger of working conditions for flower makers -finding that no cats or rats survived in the factories, and that workers suffered from scabs, ulcerations, loss of skin and cancerous scars on their legs. [7]

Emerald Green Pigment. Jane Austen World Blog.

Such findings eventually led to countries like Germany and France legislating against dangerous pigments, but Britain did nothing. However, the popularity of green had been irreparably damaged and Matthews David suggests that the fashion for pure white gowns that took hold at the end of the century was partially a reaction to the dangers of colour pigments such as Scheele’s Green.

Mad hatters

The Mad Hatter by Tenniel. 1858. Public domain via Wikimedia.

Hatters have always held a place in the public imagination, ever since Lewis Carol created the memorable Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.  Whether this literary creation was intended to show the effects of mercury poisoning on hat manufacturers or not (and there is some debate on this), his erratic behaviour and shakey demeaner do seem close to the effects suffered by hat makers.

Men’s hats have formed an elaborate and often expensive part of etiquette and social status for centuries.  In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beaver was the luxury material that the best hats were made from.  Beaver pelts could be felted without addition of dangerous chemicals such as mercury. Once felted, they could be moulded into what ever shape was currently fashionable: tricorne, bicorne, cone, topper, whatever.  However, their popularity was their downfall, and by the late sixteenth century beaver was extinct in Europe and only available via North American trade routes.  Eventually that source also dried up, and by the eighteenth century inferior local materials such as rabbit or hare were being used.  These pelts, being rougher, required a mercury and acid solution to break down the keratin in them and achieve felting.  The process caused the fur to turn orange, so it became know as carrotting. [8][9]

Fur Industry hat manufacture. 1858. Public Domain via Wikimedia.

There are a number of legends as to how hatters discovered the benefits of mercury, one memorable (if probably apocryphal tale) explains that hatters routinely added their own urine to the heated kettles containing the acidic liquids used in the process.  It was found that one worker’s urine was apparently more effacious than his colleagues – he explained that had been receiving mercury treatment for syphilis (a syringe of mercury to his penis) and thus the benefits of Mercury were revealed to the hatting trade! [10]

Hatting guilds had tried to ban Mercury from the process in 1716, in order to protect quality, the trade was losing its artisanal status as the process became more industrialised, but the defiance was short lived.  Hatters suffered as a consequence.  Mercury is incredibly toxic and a 1925 study by the Bureau International du Travail found that its impaired the neuromotor system. Hatters suffered from trembling and shaking. Evidence could be found in their very shaky signatures.

Medical text books and wax models in the Musee des Moulanges at Hopital Saint-Louis in Paris showed typical symptoms to include clubbed, stained and bulging nails, possibly indicative of underlying heart or lung problems and chronic oxygen deprivation.  They also suffered from erratic behaviour. Hatters wore no protective gloves, they ingested mercury through their lungs and skin on a daily basis and the effects were permanent.

Even today, some museums such as the Victoria and Albert, have to mark these hats as toxic.

Jean-Jaques Grandville satirized the dangers of the hatters trade well, in his illustration ‘La Mode’ – showing a wheel (an agonising French execution device).

Ashes to ashes

Wearing a crinoline. Mid nineteenth century. Source unknown.

Poisonous chemicals were not the only way that fashion could be fatal in the nineteenth century.  Changes to the textiles favoured by fashion could also be catastrophic.  In earlier centuries fabrics such as brocades and heavy silks and velvets were favoured. However the nineteenth century saw new fabrics such as muslins, cottons, and bobbinet/tulle (machine woven lace), often stiffened and made more flammable with starch, become popular.  Such diaphanous, ethereal costumes, that looked delightful by gas light, were much less fire safe than the heavier fabrics of old.

In addition to this structural garments such as the steel crinoline, a prime example of how industrialisation influenced fashion, could be very combustible.  The Crinoline was a large bell shaped structure that trapped air beneath it, thereby creating a chimney or funnel effect that could swiftly incinerate the careless wearer.

Between 1858 – 1864 nearly five million crinolines were manufactured by two Peugeot factories alone – illustrating the impact of industrialisation on production.[11]  Every woman, at every age and level of society wore them.  Some crinolines had  cirumferences of 8 feet.  While they definitely gave ladies presence and allowed them to own the space they occupied, they came with great risks.

Crinoline manufacture 1860. Public domain [?]

One such unfortunate lady, the 18 year old Archduchess Mathilde of Austria, was caught smoking an illicit cigarette by her father.  Trying to hid the offending article behind her, her skirts caught fire and the hapless Archduchess burned to death in front of her horrified father. [12]

A lady goes up in flames. 1860. Wellcome Collection.

Ballerina’s also suffered – in huge numbers – from flammable fashion.  Favouring tulle for their ethereal costumes and dancing very close to the footlights (so the male theatre goers could ogle their legs) they regularly incinerated themselves and their audiences.  In the USA in 1861 Philadelphia’s Continental Theatre saw one such fatal blaze that claimed the lives of 8 (possibly 9) ballerinas [14]. Drury Lane Theatre in London saw the firey demise of the star Ballerina Clara Webster in 1844 and perhaps the most famous victim of the fashion for flimsy tutu’s was Emma Livry star of the Paris Opera Ballet.  Considered the last great star of the Romantic Ballet tradition she had a suitably tragic end, when choosing to reject a dingy and stiff flame retardant tutu in favour of her ethereal tulle, she suffered the consequences, dying 8 months after her tutu caught fire during a rehearsal.

Fire at the Continental Theatre. Frank Leslie Illustrated News 28 Sept 1861.

In 1860, the height of the crinonline’s popularity, the Lancet medical journal estimated that 3000 women a year burned to death. [13]

Fashion Victim

Suddenly, in the nineteenth century to be a la mode was no longer the preserve of the rich; everyone from the society beauty to the scullery maid could participate in this newly democratised world of fashion, however, there was a heavy price to pay.

While the ladies and gentlemen of fashion, as the wearers of these garments, may well have been affected by them, far more victims were of the lower and disenfranchised classes. Ballerinas worked in highly flammable costumes, garment trade workers and mill workers worked in a largely unregulated industry, slaves worked in exploitative conditions on cotton plantations.  The fashion industry in the nineteenth century had a wide and deadly reach.

A lot has improved since then, with stricter regulation of chemicals, and improvements in working conditions and workers rights in the West.  However, headline grabbing incidents such as fires in Bangladeshi sweatshops and Chinese workers at risk of Silicosis from sandblasting jeans, [15][16] is a reminder that continued demand for cheap, fashionable clothing may have simply hidden the problem from us, by transferring manufacture to less regulated areas of the globe. Until these global issues are addressed, fashion will still claim it’s sacrifices amongst the poor.

The Wellcome Collection.

Sources and notes


Matthews David, Alison, 2015, ‘Fashion Victims The Dangers of Dress Past and Present’ [1]-[3], [5]-[8],[10]-[13], [16]

https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/dress-hat-fashion-clothing-mercury-arsenic-poison-history/ [15]



https://tidingsofyore.wordpress.com/2014/11/21/ballerinas-on-fire-1861/ [14]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Wilhelm_Scheele [4] [9]