By Lauren R., 2019 Summer Student
When arriving back at the Oshawa Museum this summer, I entered into the midst of construction of our newest exhibit, The Vintage Catwalk. Surrounded by a dizzying array of patterns and colours, one artefact easily stood out in my vision. Morbidly fascinated, I stared at the Emerald Green ball grown only a few feet from me. It was vibrant, captivating, beautiful and oh so deadly. I knew what it was in an instant as the vibrant colour betrayed its poisonous nature to me – a killer dress or, as some would call it, an arsenic dress. Many of you will know, if you’ve read my previous posts, I’m a lover of the macabre artefacts that grace the Museum’s exhibit space, so it should be no surprise when I present this one to you as well.
The history of fashion has been riddled with dangerous and deadly materials, dyes and procedures. There were aniline dyed socks that caused swelling in the wearer’s feet and lesions and bladder cancer in the men who made them. Celluloid combs that were used to decorate hair could explode when heated. Lead make-up caused ladies’ wrists to deteriorate until they could not raise their hands. And Hatters suffered from paranoia, trembling, cardiorespiratory problems and early death caused by mercury poisoning – the very substance used to give the lasting shine and smooth texture to fur hats.
But nothing in this hazardous history was as dangerous as the brilliant green dyes that bathed Victorian London. One variation of the pigment was created in 1814 in the German town of Schweinfurt by the Wilhelm Dye and White Lead Company. Brilliant and jewel-like, the chemists dubbed their new creation ‘emerald green.’ Along with this shade there were many others being made, ranging in a variety of green hues, all of which used arsenic as their base.
Due to the recent introduction of gaslight into homes, party goers and home owners were scouring for bright fabrics to stand out at events and in the house. While the candle light of the past hid the drab colour that came from natural dyes, gaslight only made the material look more miserable. The population flocked to the new and stunning green shades on the market; where there were once muddled browns and muted yellows now were shinning and jewel like hues to enchanted the eye. Soon arsenic products infested homes all over Britain. Wallpaper, carpets, clothing, shoes, gloves, accessory boxes, and fake flower wreaths were all brushed with the toxic substance. More importantly still, the dye was brushing off on people. It was a brush of death for many.
The wallpaper in nurseries and bedrooms could lead to the death of the inhabitants as the gaslight atomized the arsenic into the air. Those who wore the green-tinted dresses and accessories experienced hair loss, nausea, green-tinted hands and blisters, all from the slow absorption of the arsenic through their sweating skin leaching the toxic dyes from the unsealed fabric into a person’s skin. While these side-effects seem atrocious, they were nothing to what the workers in the fabric factories faced. Things like anemia, headaches, sores, scabs, discolored hands and nails, nausea and lesions (to name a few) plagued the people who made them and transformed them into consumable goods.
In the 1860s, at the height of its popularity, there was a sudden revolt against the use of the colouring agent when a 19-year-old factory worker in London died horrifically from arsenic poisoning. This event sent the public into a fear frenzy. Soon countries like Scandinavia, Germany and France (who had been doing their own investigations of the products) banned the substance outright. Britain placed restrictions on the use of arsenic in products but in the end, there was no formal ban, and the true change came from informed consumers.
The legacy of arsenic can still be seen in the arsenic-phobic attitude that is prevalent in fashion houses like Chanel. It is said that Coco Chanel’s infamous black and white colour palette was influenced by an aversion to ‘natural colours,’ like green. To this day some seamstresses in the Chanel fashion house believe that green is a colour of ‘bad luck.’
While these fascinating fashion fixtures are fabulous to behold one must always remember their fatal nature. Arsenic can still be found in artefacts today, though in much smaller amounts than when they were made, like the dress we have on display, or the dress owned by the Ryerson school of fashion, which was displayed at the Bata Shoe Museum as part of their Fashion Victims exhibition.