Killer fashion: Lethal dress laced with arsenic to be unveiled at York Castle Museum

By Culture24 Reporter | 03 March 2016

Curators in York don protective gloves to handle a Victorian dress laced with arsenic

a photo of a woman with gloves handling a Victorian ball gown
Ali Bodley with the lethal Victorian gown © York Museums Trust
A lethal dress ‘laced’ with arsenic is about to go on show in a new exhibition in York, where curators have had to wear protective gloves in order to ready it for display.

The Victorian green gown is a lethal star exhibit in York Castle Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Shaping the Body: Food, Fashion & Life opening on March 26

Exploring different periods in history where following the latest fashion trends could quite literally curtail your life expectancy. And as the exhibition’s senior curator, Ali Bodley, explains, fashion history is littered with designs and styles that would could have lethal consequences when worn.

“Ingredients that we now know to be toxic were regularly used during the dying of fabrics or in cosmetics applied directly to the skin,” says Ali, “but often in relatively low concentrations during each wear or application, so it is not until much later that the devastating effects would have been experienced.”

An example of this alarming practice is the stunning Victorian green gown, in which the makers used arsenic to produce the vibrant colour. Traces of the lethal substance remain in the dress today.

A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Victorian dress (circa 1870)© Courtesy York Castle Museum
“On a dry fabric, this might not cause too many problems,” says Ali, “but as soon as the wearer started to perspire, the arsenic could be absorbed into the blood stream.

"As the arsenic absorbed replaces phosphorus in the bone, it would accumulate until it reached levels where it could cause illnesses from rashes and ulceration to dizziness, confusion and weakness of the hands and feet – permanent damage for which there is still no cure.”

Sadly for Victorians – and modern day costume curators – arsenic isn’t the only lethal poison lurking in the folds of ball gowns and other garments. 

Mercury was commonly used in the production of felt for hats, and those who inhaled its vapours often suffered physical and neurological ailments including formication – the sensation of small insects crawling under the skin - insomnia, profuse sweating or increased salivation.

“This was the origin of the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ – and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland represented a person suffering from mercury poisoning,” adds Ali.

Other fashions on display in the York exhibition were not lethal, but a selection of rare and unusual corsets includes one that cinched the waist to an eye-watering 19 inches.

A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Corset of light brown cotton twill with darker brown panels. Lined with white linen (1880-1890)© Courtesy York Castle Museum
“This wasp waist corset was probably worn by a young woman, and would have been reasonably comfortable, designed to be worn whilst playing tennis as well as resting – something that could not be said of the most extreme examples of corsetry which took waists down to 16 to 18 inches,” says Ali.

“These corsets were designed to accentuate the curves from bust to waist to hips, but the years of having such a narrow waist would have forced compression of internal organs – and it is little wonder that women would faint given the slightest excitement!”
A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Fashionable underwear for the 1860s, shift corset and crinoline© Courtesy York Castle Museum
A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Corset of iron with back clasp opening and hinges at either side (1580-1599)© Courtesy York Castle Museum
A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Lacing a Waspie corset (1890-1900), for active wear such as horse riding or cycling© Courtesy York Castle Museum
A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Stays or corset of brown coarse linen, closely stitched in rows from top© Courtesy York Castle Museum
A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Fashion doll with removable wig and clothes (1750-1810)© Courtesy York Castle Museum
A photo of a historic dress on show at York Castle Museum
Georgian Gent, known as a macaroni (circa 1770)© Courtesy York Castle Museum
What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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That's not Ali Bodley in the photo ! That's M Faye Prior !
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