Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, by Alison Matthews David

Stomach-churning detail reminds us of the blood, sweat and tears in clothes, says Shahidha Bari

September 24, 2015
Review: Fashion Victims, by Alison Matthews David

“Affectations can be dangerous,” remarked Gertrude Stein, on hearing the news of the death of Isadora Duncan in 1927. The dancer’s signature red shawl had been wrapped twice around her neck and flung over her shoulder; its trailing fringe caught in the rear axle of the low-slung Amilcar automobile in which she was being driven off. “Adieu, mes amis! Je vais à la gloire,” she had gaily declared on the scenic Promenade des Anglais of the French Riviera, just moments before the car pulled one way and her neck snapped the other. Some accounts tell of her being dragged from the vehicle and smashed against the pavement. For all of Stein’s merciless acerbity, one has to concede something of the truth of her judgement. A fragment of that tenacious shawl is archived in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, as a photograph attests: it is just one of many ghoulish images in Alison Matthews David’s decidedly cautionary book.

“Clothing,” David writes bluntly, “which is supposed to shield our fragile, yielding flesh from danger, often fails spectacularly in this important task, killing its wearers. Extreme styles have often been dangerous, and yet the most banal everyday garments including socks, shirts, skirts, and even flannelette pyjamas, have harmed us.” If you happen to start reading this book, as I did, in bed on a leisurely rainy September morning, you may well suddenly feel a little suspicious of your own innocently striped nightwear. Certainly George Bernard Shaw felt something similar after reading a book about one of David’s precursors, Gustav Jaeger, a rather austere-looking German naturalist and hygienist, who argued passionately throughout the late 19th century in favour of more sanitary undergarments and extolled the virtues of wearing fabrics made of high quality fibres and free of toxic dyes. (The modern-day high street Jaeger label, of which most of us elbow-patched bookish types know little, takes its name from that esteemed, although not especially stylish, fellow.) “Now my leather braces give me rheumatism,” grumbled the winking Shaw, “the lining of my hat gives me meningitis;…my waistcoat threatens me with fatty degeneration of the heart; dropsy lurks in my trouser…Farewell. The cholera is comin’, and I feel that my cotton shirt is destined to be my shroud.”

One suspects that David, who is evidently a serious-minded writer, would have given GBS’ mischief short shrift. This is a rightly sober book, full of awful stories and depicting a grisly landscape of hazard and misadventure. It is also, very clearly, a diligently researched and carefully collated dossier of the conditions of the textile-working poor: victims of the experimental industrial chemistry and mechanical mass production that characterised the 19th century. These “victims” of fashion are David’s concern, but what becomes clear in this book is how effectively the history of the garment manufacturing industry illuminates the society and economy within which it took place.

Indeed, both Marx and Engels, who surface in this book at critical moments, focused on textile production. In Das Kapital, Marx specifically cites the case of one Mary Ann Walkley, a 20-year-old seamstress employed by court dressmaker Madame Elise, who died of overwork after sewing for 26.5 hours straight. Walkley also seems to have provided the model for John Tenniel’s high Victoriana print for Punch in 1863, “The Haunted Lady or ‘The Ghost’ in the Looking-Glass”, in which a preening young woman in a voluminous crinoline and ruched gown gazes at her reflection and catches, in the corner of the mirror, the image of a starved woman slumped against the wall behind her.

For Marx, seamstresses such as Walkley were the spectres stalking capitalism. In many ways, the merit of David’s doggedly accumulated data is that it quietly illuminates this argument by pointing up the graphic tragedy and patent exploitation of an industry whose products were as pervasive as they could be pernicious. From the bacterial infections transferred by the close proximities and poor sanitation of soldiers in trenches to the ulcerated fingers of arsenic-inhaling fashioners of artificial flowers, David offers up gruesome examples that lend weight to a compelling, but never hectoring, polemic. In its own understated way, Fashion Victims provides an excoriating critique of early industrial capitalism. And it makes for a gripping (if sometimes meandering) read, often fascinatingly queer and curious.

An archive of shakily drawn pencil lines and wobbly signatures, David observes, betrays the various neuromotor impairments of French hatters, evidently poisoned by the mercury that they handled for the purposes of felting. It’s difficult not to try to diagnose the similar symptoms of Lewis Carroll’s erratic and anxious March Hare; and, as David suggests, Johnny Depp’s demonically redheaded rendition of the Mad Hatter for Tim Burton’s psychedelic 2010 film Alice in Wonderland seems an equally knowing nod. The toxic solutions employed to break down the keratin proteins in furs often turned their edges orange – a process, impishly, called carroting.

Details such as this, variously delightful, macabre and stomach churning, are littered throughout David’s book. A colour print from a 1900 edition of Puck magazine mischievously depicts a maid grimly dusting off her mistress’ cloak while a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper hovers behind her. Elegantly trailing gowns collected dog faeces and “profuse expectorations” (ugh!) as they swished along the street, David informs us. More awful still was the astonishing epidemic of flammable 19th-century dancers, whose various tulles, muslins and cottons were easily set ablaze by open-flamed stage lights. Some dancers objected to the yellowing effect of early flame retardant treatments, preferring, it would seem, to be scorched on stage. A Lancashire industrialist was more pragmatic; in 1860 he banned employees from wearing the crinolines that were “quite unfitted for the work of our factories”.

We are shown a grisly world in which girls were regularly swallowed up, dress first, by flames, printing presses and assorted mechanical monstrosities. That these victims were so often poor and female is something the author notes as data, never quite formulating the full critique of that inequality, or reflecting on its implications. It is certainly easy to sympathise with the late Victorian writer and suffrage campaigner Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s scathing denunciation of the “mincing twittering gait” of the fashionably hobbled skirts of her time, but there is also a question here warranting further inspection as to the ways in which the wearing and making of clothes has been so concertedly loaded against the well-being of women.

David conscientiously cites the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013, in which the collapse of a building in Bangladesh led to the deaths of more than 1,000 garment workers and injured thousands more. In Bangladesh, women constitute about 80 per cent of garment workers. The changing global landscape of textile production, exploitative trade practices and the sobering environmental impact of “disposable fashion” are the problems towards which this history reaches without quite addressing. To be fair, this is a difficult task, and to David’s considerable credit, the conscientious and compelling history that she presents here forms an unquestionably important contribution to this project. The contemporary parallels are always on the horizon in Fashion Victims: the closing image, chokingly, is a worryingly cloudy X-ray taken of the chest of a “young, former denim sandblaster” who was diagnosed with silicosis in 2011.

This is an earnest and important book, generously illustrated and full of interest, retrieving heart-sinking horror from the historical record, and signposting a future that remains immensely troubling.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London. She is writing a book on philosophy and dress.


Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present
By Alison Matthews David
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781845204495 and 9781472577733 (e-book)
Published 24 September 2015


The author

Author Alison Matthews DavidBorn and raised in Toronto, Alison Matthews David still lives in the city, not far from Ryerson University, where she is associate professor in the School of Fashion.

She shares a home with her “endlessly patient husband, whom I met at a fencing club during my PhD research in Paris, and our children, aged 7 and 9. During the writing of this book, my kids were not always as patient with me as he was, and one of the most heart-wrenching but hilarious moments was when I came into my office to find my daughter had used putty to stick sharp staples upside down on every letter of my keyboard.”

Our cat Leo, who also interfered with my keyboard and draped himself luxuriously across my desk throughout the writing of the book, was tragically hit by a car just as I was finishing the manuscript. We were heartbroken. We now have a lovely tuxedo, ie black and white, cat called Mochi, although Leo is still sorely missed. 

Recalling the key influences on her childhood, David says, My father was a professional photographer and my mother was a museum librarian. As a result of this upbringing full of pictures and books, I draw constantly on images and words, and I need both to tell a story. Growing up, our living room was a studio and our basement was a darkroom, and that was formative for me. I grew up seeing how seductive pictures were created from start to finish.

My father taught me the technical aspects of using the camera, how to stage and light a portrait, and I stood beside him waiting for the magical moment when the image appeared in the chemical bath. Finally, I watched as my father, who was a real craftsman as well as a trained physicist, meticulously retouched the print by hand with a brush. It was beautiful but terrifying, because even as a very young child I knew that the chemicals he used were toxic and could poison me if I came too close, but I was entranced by the whole process.

Art supplies and books were always close to hand, although the mix of private and potentially poisonous professional space in our house made for a chaotic and sometimes dangerous home life. No wonder I loved wandering around in the perfectly organized and displayed collections of the Royal Ontario Museum, where my mother worked.

She was, she says, “quite an introverted child, and spent a lot of time drawing, reading, and sitting in peach trees at my grandparents’ house in the Niagara countryside contemplating the world.

I suppose I’ve always been something of a dreamer and an idealist. I loved teachers who introduced me to poetry, from my junior high school teacher, M. Tréboute, who had us read and analyse Charles Baudelaire’s poems, to my high school teacher, Mr Payne, who was willing to teach Homer in ancient Greek to only two students, to my best professor ever, [the poet] Anne Carson, who was then in the Classics department at McGill University. Her willingness to break new creative and intellectual territory thrilled and inspired me to follow my own path, to ‘attempt the unattempted’, as she once wrote in a book of poems she was dedicating.”

David has undertaken interdisciplinary research with academic peers in the sciences. “When I taught at the University of Southampton in the UK, there was a textile conservation programme that had scientists as part of their research team. I thought that their work was fascinating and wondered whether science could help me find out whether Victorian cases of arsenic poisoning from green dresses and hair wreaths were fact rather than fiction. I approached the chair of our physics department, and luckily she loves fashion. She generously opened her state of the art lab to us.

I started working with a doctoral student, Eric Da Silva, and I threw all sorts of objects at him, including make-up containing lead (both Victorian face powder and contemporary lipsticks), green shoes and dresses, and even a Radium brand hospital blanket from the 1920s that fortunately was not radioactive. It was such an eye-opener to see how scientists viewed the objects I was studying, and it gave me a new perspective on history. I loved the forensic science part of this project so much that I am working with Eric on my next project investigating the links between clothing and crime. 

Asked if the fashion students she teaches are increasingly interested in issues such as sustainability, labour rights and occupational safety, David says, As the graduate programme director of our Master of Arts Fashion, I work with both undergraduates and postgraduate students and we take a critical approach to these issues at all levels. I think that many more students entering the programme now, particularly at a postgraduate level, are actually here because they love fashion but are concerned about glaring issues around ethics and sustainability. From talking to them, I know that when they intern or go out into the work world they experience labour rights and occupational health issues first-hand. Some of them are courageously tackling it head on and we as educators want to make sure that they are equipped to do that, but it’s still difficult and change can be slows.”

What gives David hope? “My daughter, who grew up with me working on this book, gives me hope when she asks me to tell her about Matilda Scheurer, a young flowermaker who died from arsenic poisoning in Victorian London, or grills me to find out more about what happened at the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh and why people were killed for fast fashion. She has always seen the historical figures I work on as real, flesh and blood people who deserve our attention and sympathy, and it is my hope that this book will make us all think about and feel for the people who still suffer to make our clothes.”

Karen Shook

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Print headline: Killers lurking in every closet

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