Thursday, February 11, 2016

Fashion Victims review

The Bata Shoe Museum opened an exhibit a while ago entitled Fashion Victims: The Pleasures & Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. Along with the exhibit, a book was released, Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews Davis.
At the immediate time, I probably won't be able to get up to the exhibit, located in Toronto, and it ends June 2016. But the companion book was available through my library so I put in order

The content focuses on fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries primarily, and the affects it had on the people who not only wore, but primarily made it. Some of the case examples are well-known, like mercury in hats and the maddening effect on their producers, or arsenic in bright green fabrics.

There are additional materials that I had not encountered before and found rather interesting. The first of which was the diseases that sometimes stemmed from clothing. And I don't just mean smallpox blankets given to Native American populations. We're talking about lice in the seams of soldiers' uniforms during WWI, and filthy Edwardian dress hems. In other source materials, the rise of women's hemlines during the 1910s is credited to the suffrage movement. David puts forward that another reason hemlines rose up was because of sanitary movements, which promoted shorter, non-trailing hems to prevent bacteria and microbes from being introduced to the house off the street.
Next interesting case. Yes, arsenic was very problematic, but so were aniline dyes. Many of these came about as various chemicals were introduced and developed to help create different fabric dyes. The author discusses how because of different dye patterns on socks and the effects of the chemicals, people could end up with striped lesions running up and down their legs.

Then of course there was the creation of tulle which led to many deaths of ballerinas due to its flammability. Not to mention the problems people had with natural fiber materials catching on fire, then the chemical concoctions that manufacturers would add to fabrics to prevent this. This would create its own problems because some of the manufacturers would use sub par concoctions that still resulted in the wearer going up in flames.

There are numerous other cases that David illuminates in this interesting book about the hazards and effects of the early fashion industry. She rounds out her case study well by pointing out that while she would love to say that the fashion industry has changed its way, that has not happened. If anything, we've distanced ourselves in the equation of fashion consumerism since a lot of production has moved over seas. Instead of having to look across the city at the hatters who are going mad as they put together our beaver hats, we can grab our designer shoes and not have to think about the impact the toxic glues might have on the person who put those shoes together.

It's definitely worth a read not only for the history behind some of the 18th Century, Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian fashions, but for the content itself that makes you ponder, have we really made that many advances in the large machine that is the modern day fashion industry? 

Review - 5 out of 5

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