10 Bizarre Deaths by Victorian Fashion

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Guest post by my Italian friend, artist Giulia Bia. Check out her art at https://www.saatchiart.com/giuliabia)


The Victorian and Edwardian eras were marked by great inventions: the bicycle, the telegraph, the telephone, the light bulb are just some of the revolutionary items that saw the light in this period.

This fever for new things influenced also fashion: original pieces of clothing were invented (e.g: the crinoline) and other classics were given a new twist (e.g: flexible and elastic sanitary corsets).

But innovations weren’t always a blessing: many fashionable items could easily kill. For example, it is estimated that fires ignited by crinolines killed at least 3.000 women between the late 1850s and the late 1860s (LINK 0)

Let’s begin our journey through the perils of Victorian and Edwardian fashion by making acquaintance with some of its victims.

10) Death by crinoline


Have you ever wondered what kept the skirts women used to wear during the Victorian era so puffed and voluminous? It was the crinoline, a large cage worn under dresses and made, in the 1850s, of spring steel hoops connected by cotton tapes. The crinoline was so popular and so loved by women of all social classes that Punch, the famous satirical journal, coined the term “Crinolinemania”.

Apart from preventing women to climb buses and passing through narrow doorways, to name just a few hindrances, the crinoline had a dangerous drawback: due to the circumference of their skirts, women didn’t notice they were too close to fires, and their dresses, made mainly of silk and muslin, ignited easily. The oxygen circulating under the skirt literally added fuel to the fire.

Two of the most famous victims of crinoline’s tendency to burst into flames were Emily and Mary Wilde, illegitimate daughters of Sir William Wilde and Oscar Wilde’s half sisters. During a ball in their honor at Drumaconnor House on Halloween Night, 1871, Emily’s crinoline caught fire while waltzing past the open fireplace. Mary run to help her, but her crinoline started to burn as well. Badly burnt, the sisters passed away after long days of unbearable agony.

9) Death by corset


In the Victorian period, the debate on the effects of the corset on the female body was all the rage: some claimed that it enhanced posture, made women appear more ladylike and refined, while others pointed out its detrimental effects, such as difficulty breathing, compressed lungs, fractured ribs, displacements of internal organs.
Though much of the clamor stems from the practice of tight lacing, the corset claimed at least one victim: Mrs Mary E. Halliday, resident of Niagara Falls, who died suddenly in 1903 without any apparent reason. During the autopsy, two pieces of corset steel were found in her heart, but the coroner had no idea how they had entered the body.

Mrs Halliday must have been a woman of great temper, though, because it seems none of her relatives ever heard her complain of any freak accident that might have explained the strange finding.

8) Death by high collars

high collar2

Not only women were subject to the perils of fashion: men’s lives were threatened by the so called “father killer”, the detachable high collar connected to the shirt by studs. Its nickname might be explained by the fact that it was so stiff it could easily cut off the circulation.

Because of his high collar, Mr John Cluetzl suffered a death so bizarre it could compete for the Darwin Awards. According to the New York Times of September 15, 1888, the man had a few too many and fell asleep on a bench. His head dropped forward on his chest and his collar chocked him, causing asphyxia and apoplexy.

Another victim of this unsuspected trap was some William F. Dillon who, in 1912, was choked by his own collar after an attack of indigestion.

7) Death by children’s clothes


Not even children were safe from the dangers posed by their clothes, especially if they were made with flannelette, a kind of cotton fabric with a fluffy surface introduced in England in 1885.

Flannelette was cheap and kept the wearer warm: that’s why it was used to produce mainly nightgowns and children clothes, especially for the lower classes. Like many other fabrics of the period, though, it was highly flammable.

Its risks were well described in an article of the New York Times published in 1902:

“Flannelette lights up very quickly, and the wearer finds himself enveloped in fierce flames in an instant. The slightest contact with any burning substance instantly sets it blazing, and the flames spread over the whole surface in a few seconds”.

According to the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle of July 1905, an unnamed boy of 2 years old was burned to death while wearing a flannelette nightshirt. He was playing alone in a room when his mother heard terrible cries. When she rushed to see what was happening, she found him wrapped in flames. Despite the prompt aid, the boy died the day after.

6) Death by stockings


In the good old days, when clothes were washed, colors ran freely in the water. That’s why the dyes were fixed with every possible nefarious substance, from arsenic to prussic acid, to picric acid to mercury. These substances rubbed off on the skin and penetrated it, aided by sweat and heat. Consequences ranged from mild (blisters, swelling, rashes) to extreme (death).

Stockings were no exceptions, and reports on “death by stockings” are numerous. One of them is about Harry V. Chapman, a 9 year old boy who died in 1883 after the coloring of his black stockings entered a wound on his foot. According to the article, “the foot and leg were swollen to twice their natural size at the time of death”.

5) Death by tutus


In 1809, John Heathcoat patented a machine capable of producing an imitation of pillow-lace, called “English net” or “bobbinet”: the modern tulle was born. It was sheer and shiny and, because of its extremely light weight, it was frequently layered and starched to add more volumes to the garments. The main drawback? Starch is highly flammable.

Tulle was used to create dancers’ skirts, called tutus, because it allowed free movement and didn’t add weight to their physical exertion. According to Alison Mathew Davis, professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University, Toronto, “Marie Taglioni’s performance of La Silphyde in 1832 cemented the aesthetic of the so called ballet blanche and led to a great abuse of white gauze, tulle and tarlatane”.

Perhaps the most famous victim of tulle was British ballerina Clara Webster, who died in 1844 during a performance of The revolt of the harem at the Drury Lane Theater, when her skirt came too close to the unprotected sunken lights on stage and caught fire. She was rescued by the stage hands, but died a few days later because of the burns she had sustained.

4) Death by comb


First called parkesine, celluloid gained its current name in 1870 and soon became a sensation because it was cheap, easily moldable and could be used as a substitute for the more expensive ivory, horn and tortoiseshell. A lot of items were produced with celluloid, such as toys, billiard balls, vanity sets, razors, jewelry. It was all well and good until celluloid combs began to explode and reap victims.

Celluloid is extremely flammable because it is composed of cellulose nitrate and camphor; many newspaper of the turn of the century warn men and women about its extreme danger.

One Stockdale Snyder (yes, it was his real name), respected citizen of Wilson, Pennsylvania, lost his life in 1910 while holding a celluloid comb over a small stove to burn the hair stuck in the teeth. He just wanted to care for his “long gray beard”.
It also seems that quite a few factories that produced celluloid combs tended to explode; one of them was in New York. The explosion caused the deaths of Charles Bouffard, head of the comb company, and his wife, and it burned down other shops around the factory. It was 1906.

3) Death by flower wreaths


It is a well-known fact that, in the Victorian period, arsenic was everywhere: wallpapers, curtains, candles and particularly clothes and accessories were saturated with this most dangerous poison, that gave everything a very appreciated bright green color.
Artificial flower wreaths were ticking arsenic bombs too: braided in women’s hair, they could cause rashes and blisters, but it was the poor women who made them who had it worse.

A victim of arsenic poisoning was 19 years old Matilda Scheurer, who died a horrible death in 1861. Her job was to make artificial flowers and dust them with arsenic-laced powder, that she inhaled continually and ate with every meal. Soon she was sick, vomited green bile, convulsed; her nails and the white of her eyes turned green. She died in great pain after days of agony.

Her death raised consciousness about the danger of arsenic dyes and many philanthropic organizations denounced the horrifying conditions flower makers were forced to work in.

2) Death by hobble skirt


Probably one of the most vituperated feminine garments of all times, the hobble skirt was a long skirt whose hem was so narrow to hamper a woman’s stride. According to lore, the “prototype” of the hobble skirt can be traced back to Mrs Hart O. Berg, who had the honor to share a flight with Wilbur Wright. To keep her skirt from blowing in the wind, she tied a rope at its bottom and, after the landing, she was seen hobbling around until she removed the rope.

The hobble skirt saw its heyday during the Edwardian period and found its timely end around 1915, when women started to lead an active social life, but not without leaving some victims on its wake.

Apart from being constantly mocked in the press, the journals of the early 1900s are rife with reports of freak accidents and deaths caused by the hobble skirt. For example, Miss Ida Goyette met her maker when she tried to step over a locked gate on a bridge while wearing a hobble skirt: she tripped and plunged in the river below, drowning.

Another woman was trampled by a bolting horse at the Chantilly race course in 1910 because the tightness of her skirt prevented her from running away.

1) Death by shoes


During the Victorian and Edwardian era, mauve was a particularly beloved color for women’s shoes. Before its introduction in 1856, mauve and shades of purple were virtually unheard of, and it’s probably because of this that the first synthetic dye, mauveine, took the world of fashion by storm. Alas, mauveine was highly toxic, its main ingredients being aniline, an extract of coal tar, and other poisonous substances.
Apart from mauve dyes, another element that made shoes a potential hazard was shoe polish, made with nitrobenzene or aniline, both very toxic chemicals. If the shoes were worn before the polish was completely dry, the effects ranged from fainting to turning blue.

Let’s close this short review on the dangers of fashion with a semi-happy ending:  according to Le Petit Parisien of September 15, 1905, Jean Elias, a 19 year old man, had brought his yellow shoes to the cobbler to have them dyed. (LINK 20) To give them a glossy black polish, the cobbler used aniline, and its effects soon showed up. After wearing his newly colored shoes, Jean felt suddenly ill and was rushed to the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in very serious conditions.

Though there is no follow-up of the story, we can assume the young man recovered, as there is no mention of his death in the local newspapers.





















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