Does this dress make me look dead?

Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews-David is a fascinating tour through the awful things our love of display and novelty has inflicted on us. Stuffed full of plums about flammable crinolines, arsenic-loaded faux flowers, neuro-toxic chemicals used in everything from hat manufacture to the early synthetic materials to stripey men’s socks for Victorian dandies, this is a weird mix of entertaining and shocking.

Many of these dangerous clothes are of necessity old – as both  the makers of them, and their wearers, showed signs of the horrible effects successive governments in the USA, UK and France, outlawed various ingredients and practices, making the clothes safer to wear. One picks up the feeling that the comfort and safety of wearers was the point – the workers could display really nasty symptoms for quite a while, it was only when the clothes-buying middle-classes started to show signs of the same symptoms that action was taken. Mind you, the authorities could only do so much; if the garment that gave you a nasty measle-like rash was in the latest exciting new colour like mauve, people still insisted on wearing it.

Here in the 21st century we shouldn’t feel superior. Matthews-David writes about young men in Turkey developing silicosis because of their jobs sandblasting new denim jeans into the exact shade and feel of ‘used-ness’ required by fashion. We may not experience the horror of Herakles, dying as his poison-impregnated shirt consumes him, but Matthews-David points out the Western world’s cheapie, alluring, wantable, throw-away fashions require people elsewhere to work in places and with chemicals that most Westerner’s wouldn’t touch – and often couldn’t because their governments have long-standing regulations in place.

Wonderfully illustrated, thought-provoking, a great read but also scholarly (all the sources are listed), and finally a really well-designed book, a lovely objet, covering the scary bones  of its subject just like one of the arsenic-saturated green gowns in a Victorian ballroom.

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