Victorian Era Fashion loved the color green. It’s the color of springtime and good health–even Christmas. As The Industrial Revolution progressed, cities became increasingly crowded and dark. Under gray clouds of pollution, the sparkle of nature’s green on gowns or wallpaper offered a breath of fresh air.
Advancements in chemistry made the new green pigments both readily available and affordable to the upper class as well as the emerging middle class. Green became all the rage of Victorian Era Fashion and Décor. As it turned out, that breath of air was toxic enough to die for.
There was no colorfast green color until Scheele’s Green was invented in 1775. It contained high levels of arsenic. An improved version, Paris Green, appeared in 1814. When it was finely ground, it was a vivid shade of green that could color everyday items from wallpaper and toys to carpets and clothing. Never mind that it still contained high levels of arsenic and it was used to kill rats in Parisian Sewers. Paris Green was bright and it was drop dead gorgeous.
In her book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, Alison Matthews David delves into clothing as a cause of death, disease and madness throughout history. She explores everything from combustible crinolines to killer corsets to maddening mercury-laced hats.
Among the most fatal of all clothing trends in the Victorian Era was the color green. Matthews-David, an associate professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University, details the chilling story of the young girls and women who toiled in London’s workshops that produced artificial flowers and leaves used primarily to decorate hairpieces, ball gowns and home décor.
On November 20, 1861, artificial flower maker Metilda Scheurer, died a gruesome, painful death from arsenic poisoning. Although she had suffered from several bouts of arsenic poisoning prior, her death was deemed accidental by authorities. That conclusion triggered investigations and a wave of outraged press.
The original Public Health investigations posted in Trading Consequences reveal the findings of the world-renowned analytical Chemist Dr. A.W. Hoffman. In it, he detailed the dangerous working conditions in the artificial flower factories that used Paris Green also known as Emerald Green. He concluded that arsenic was present in much higher quantities than previously believed in the artificial flowers and other products produced in those workshops.
Hoffman shared his findings in the London Times article, The Dance of Death. In her book, Matthews-David cites the article in which Hoffman concluded an average headdress contained enough arsenic to poison 20 people. Fashionable ball gowns contained as much as half their weight in arsenic, meaning a gown fashioned from 20 yards of this fabric would have 900 grains of arsenic.
A Berlin doctor had also determined that ‘from a dress of this kind no less than 60 grains powdered off in the course of a single evening. Four or five grains would be lethal to an average adult.
A week after Hoffman’s letter was published, the British Medical Journal said a woman in a green ball gown could “slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.’”
Matthews-David, is also co-curator of Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress In The 19th Century, at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. Along with Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, Matthews-David organized more than 90 artifacts for the show.
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