Fashion Victims
November 20, 2014 9:52 AM   Subscribe

The “arsenic” ball gown sits on a headless dressmaker’s form in the basement archives of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum as senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, wearing cotton conservators’ gloves, expounds upon its vintage (late 1860s), its provenance (Australia), its exquisite construction—and, most relevantly, its ability to kill.

Covering everything from the beautiful arsenical green to the holocaust of the ballet girls, the poison garments were curated by Alison Matthews David and Elizabeth Semmelhack (who also studied high heels)

Stay too long in the fashion industry and you might go mad as a hatter.
posted by the man of twists and turns (28 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was just about to post that first link!


Grumble, I guess this is better with more links.

( hey fun fact, there was a robust trade in turd collecting, usually by children, during the Victorian era cause horseshit was an important part of the disgusting process used to make fine leather bound books!)
posted by The Whelk at 9:58 AM on November 20, 2014


Wow...old timey cloth dyers weren't allowed to mix blue and yellow...you were licensed for one color. Crazy!
posted by sio42 at 10:01 AM on November 20, 2014


Bill Bryson's book "Home" includes a section describing how the arsenic dye used in wallpaper made it such a source of toxicity in homes for many years. See also this "Jane Austen's World" blog post (which includes a picture showing that it really was a lovely color!).
posted by wenestvedt at 10:05 AM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Wow, I would love to see this exhibit. Thanks for the post!
posted by oneirodynia at 10:10 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


While I don't doubt that the guilds had all manner of restrictions -- god knows the guilds were like that -- the chemistry of dyes, especially the kind of dyes they had back then, made them barely fit for purpose in producing a single color. Mixing them was as likely to produce black or brown as the color you were aiming for.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:10 AM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]




Semmelhack refuses to see fashion extremes and the risks people took to remain in vogue as ridiculous.

Well yeah, obviously she's not going to call what she spent her entire life studying, what her entire career is based upon, "ridiculous", you extremely silly author.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:33 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sweet! Now I have a reason to go to the shoe museum! Maybe I'll make this a MeFi meet-up in Toronto!
posted by Kitteh at 10:46 AM on November 20, 2014


The return of women’s high heels in the late 1850s and early ’60s served a different social purpose: a form of censure for women at a time the sex was becoming outspoken in the abolitionist movement. The heel had been banned for most of the century due to its association with debauched French aristocracy. Its revival was intended to summon similar negative associations, says Semmelhack: “It was called the ‘Louis heel’ to make sure everyone knew it was a reclamation of the 18th century. It was intended to be highly destabilizing.
Wow. Great article. Thanks for posting!
posted by jillithd at 10:54 AM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


And from The Whelk's link:
A story passed down in the hat industry gives this account of
how mercury came to be used in the process: In Turkey camel hair was
used for felt material, and it was discovered that the felting process
was speeded up if the fibers were moistened with camel urine. It is
said that in France workmen used their own urine, but one particular
workman seemed consistently to produce a superior felt. This person
was being treated with a mercury compound for syphilis, and an
association was made between mercury treatment of the fibers and an
improved felt....
Yummy!
posted by jillithd at 10:59 AM on November 20, 2014 [8 favorites]


( hey fun fact, there was a robust trade in turd collecting, usually by children, during the Victorian era cause horseshit was an important part of the disgusting process used to make fine leather bound books

Who am I to judge how a writer gets their inspiration?
posted by Think_Long at 11:11 AM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


The Shoe Museum is a strangely wonderful place.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:24 AM on November 20, 2014


The Whelk: "( hey fun fact, there was a robust trade in turd collecting, usually by children, during the Victorian era cause horseshit was an important part of the disgusting process used to make fine leather bound books!)"

Not just horseshit. Dog shit was also used and there was a specialized profession of 'Pure' finders.
posted by jgaiser at 11:29 AM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Those clothes are to die for!
posted by ecorrocio at 11:40 AM on November 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yes. Go to the shoe museum whenever you are in Toronto. My mom made me go, but I ended up delighted
posted by atomicstone at 12:04 PM on November 20, 2014


The Maclean's article is fabulous. Thanks for posting.
posted by maggiemaggie at 12:38 PM on November 20, 2014


The Maclean's article is fabulous.

Possibly the first time that sentence has ever been true.
posted by jeather at 12:49 PM on November 20, 2014 [3 favorites]


I find those kitten heel tiny heel shoes to be very destabilizing. I need a heel between 2.5" to 3.5", but less or more makes me topple (unless it's sneakers or a boot). I do not know why. Also wedges are hard to walk in.

My closet is shoe museum. Y'all can come for a tour anytime.

No arsenic tho.
posted by sio42 at 2:47 PM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


YES BLESS YOU CLEVER SMART PERSON, only person who has ever agreed with me, kitten heels are a fucking grotesque menace of stumbly foolishness and I want them banned forever. WHy are low heels so terrible? Aside from making my feet look like hideous elongated barges and causing me to walk like a duckfooted penguin obvsly.
posted by poffin boffin at 2:53 PM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]


Back when my wife and I were selling mineral specimens at gem shows we had a few specimens of realgar in matrix. These sold briskly from a box labeled DANGER POISON ROCKS!. So at one show a lady in her early thirties came up to the table and picked one up.

"Are these really dangerous?" she asked.

"Well, you would have to lick them to be in serious danger."

"Oh. I teach Kindergarten, do you think it would be dangerous if one of my kids licked it?"

"Probably so."

(Reaching in purse for wallet) "I'll take it."
posted by localroger at 3:22 PM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ebay always returns a lot of interesting old items, under "poison bottle."
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:19 PM on November 20, 2014


"Oh. I teach Kindergarten, do you think it would be dangerous if one of my kids licked it?"

"Probably so."

(Reaching in purse for wallet) "I'll take it."


um what
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:34 PM on November 20, 2014


Interesting connection between the mercury and the urine for felting fabric. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the tradition of the Scottish-influenced milling frolic still lives on. It's the finishing treatment for rough woven wool blankets. This BBC video describes the process (starts at 4:30), which is mostly social and urine-free these days.
posted by fundip at 7:02 PM on November 20, 2014


Wow, fascinating article. And ooooh, do I wish they could afford to do a really good printed catalog for this exhibit. I'd love to have it to pore over.
posted by Lexica at 7:41 PM on November 20, 2014


um what

That was kind of our reaction too. Fortunately we haven't seen any realgar kindergarten poisonings in the news or we'd feel kind of bad about taking that three dollars.
posted by localroger at 7:54 PM on November 20, 2014


[...] senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, wearing cotton conservators’ gloves, expounds upon its vintage (late 1860s), its provenance (Australia), its exquisite construction—and, most relevantly, its ability to kill.

If she gets bored with curating Australian fabric she can move on to curating Australian snakes, arachnids, jellyfish, mammals, and trees.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:14 PM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]


don't forget the fucking drop bears
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:51 PM on November 20, 2014


Stoya, Emma Livry and AB1576 [SFW] (also at Dazed: State of Sex ) [NSFW]
I was prepubescent and enrolled in a significant amount of ballet classes when I first heard of Emma Livry. She was so fantastically talented that the great Marie Taglioni herself was moved to choreograph Le papillon for Livry to dance the starring role in. After performing the role of Farfalla the Butterfly (in which the burning of her wings serves as the catalyst for the happy ending) Livry herself was actually burnt when her costume was set alight by the open flames of stage lighting during a rehearsal for the opera The Mute Girl of Portici. Then she died, because it was the mid-nineteenth century and antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet – which is definitely an ending, but difficult to classify as a happy one.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:53 PM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]


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