The following is a public service announcement from Killer Fashion author Jennifer Wright: If you wrap a piece of fabric around your neck—whether it’s a fabulous scarf, a dashing cravat, or a dapper necktie—you just might be tying your own noose. Why would she say such a thing? Well, consider the death of choreographer and dancer Isadora Duncan, who was known for her flowing, Grecian garments. Duncan met her maker on September 14, 1927, when she went for a drive and her long, flamboyant scarf got caught in her automobile’s back wheel.
“My mother never spotted anybody sporting a scarf without reminding me that Isadora Duncan had her head pop off because she wore a scarf,” says Wright, a freelance journalist who’s written several pieces on fashion history for Racked. “The danger of fashion is something that I learned about at a very early age.”
In her illustrated book Killer Fashion: Poisonous Petticoats, Strangulating Scarves and Other Deadly Garments Throughout History, published by Andrews McMeel in late 2017, Wright details myriad ways fashion—from clothes and accessories to beauty products—has literally slayed people. It’s an homage to Edward Gorey’s 1963 alphabet book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an illustrated poem with 26 lines describing the deaths of 26 children. Each of Killer Fashion’s 26 entries, listed in alphabetical order, includes a write-up, a Gorey-style illustration of the horror described, and a four-line poem by Wright. For example, an entry entitled “Bras” is accompanied by this rhyme: “A simple piece of metal wire / holds a lady’s breasts up higher. / But they can be in for quite a jolt, / if it attracts a lightning bolt.”
But, seriously, how many women have died getting a lift from Victoria’s Secret? “In 2009, two women struck by lightning were killed because the underwire in their bras acted as a conductor. That was a freak accident,” Wright admits. “But just think about it the next time you’re out in a lightning storm,”she says with a foreboding note creeping up in her voice. “It’s just a cool thing for you to remember.”
“By not wearing a hat, John F. Kennedy and Elvis saved a lot of lives.”
Many women have heard the old adage, “One must suffer for beauty”—“Il faut souffrir pour etre belle” in French—so like the pain of an uncomfortable push-up bra worn to achieve a curvier silhouette, death by fashion might seem like a grim comeuppance for feminine vanity. But the most troubling stories in Killer Fashion aren’t even about the style mavens who wore the toxic looks, but the poor souls tasked with making the clothes.
While fashionable flappers adopted the questionable habit of applying glow-in-the-dark radium on their lips and teeth to shimmer on the dance floor, the women who suffered most from exposure to radioactivity were the “Radium Girls” who worked in factories in the 1920s carefully painting the small numbers on the faces of swanky Undark watches and licking their glowing paint brushes to make a finer point. In a particularly gruesome Killer Fashion passage, Wright explains, “The radium painters’ teeth began to rot. When they went to the dentist to have their teeth pulled, some of their jawbones crumbled under the pressure.” In fact, the radium weakened all their bones and gave them tumors. In a few short years, the radium-factory death toll had reached 50.
The industrial processes used to make fabric for clothes often proved to be killers. Asbestos, a marvel fabric that would not burn in a fire, gave the men who mined it and the women and children who spun it into fabric in the 1850s chronic shortness of breath and cancer. In the early 20th century, the manufacturers of viscose, a cheaper alternative to silk, were exposed to carbon disulfide, which made them manic and inclined to jump out the factory window. If they survived, they were later prone to Parkinson’s disease.
The viscose makers weren’t the only workers to have their minds altered by noxious gasses released during the processing of raw material. In the 1700s, haberdashers who used mercury to make felt for their hats—everything from tricorns to top hats—suffered from tremors, mood swings, a decline in brain function, kidney disease, and respiratory failure. When Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll was growing up, he likely encountered several of these “mad hatters,” and they weren’t like the adorable tea-swilling kook you see in the Disney film. Despite doctors’ warning about mercury as early as the 1757, felt hats were processed with mercury for nearly 200 years until hats fell out of fashion in the 1960s. “By not wearing a hat, John F. Kennedy and Elvis saved a lot of lives,” Wright tells me.
Outside of factory workers, lower-class women often put their lives on the line aspiring to look like one of the elite. For example, in the 1890s, when French engineer and industrialist Comte Hilaire de Chardonnet developed a pre-viscose artificial silk, dubbed Chardonnet, women clamored for dresses made of this affordable but luxurious-looking fabric. Unfortunately, Chardonnet was also highly combustible. A woman elevated in status by an elegant silk-like dress could go up in flames if she got too close to a candle.
But fashion, historically, also hobbled women with the highest status. Sitting near the top of a patriarchy required a woman to look like a dainty, fragile doll who’d never seen a field or walked more than a few steps on her own accord. As far back as 850, the Chinese would break little girls’ feet and bind them so they wouldn’t grow more than four inches long. As a result, the women grew up tottering on deformed feet, known as golden lotuses, that looked like high-arched deer hooves (and bear a startling resemblance to the shape of modern high heels). Often, the women’s toes would curl under their feet, and when the toenail cut into her skin, the resulting infection could lead to septic shock.
“The lotus foot was popular because it meant that you weren’t going to work in the field,” Wright says. “The women’s toes fell off! That was considered a good thing because it would allow for tighter binding and tinier feet.” In extreme examples of foot binding, “you probably had to be carried places, which implied that you would always have enough wealth to have servants and you’d never need to do much walking.
“I was so shocked to learn that the last factory producing lotus shoes didn’t close until 1999,” Wright continues. “Even that recently, some women in China were expected to bind their feet to outrageously tiny proportions in order to attract a mate.”
But the Chinese weren’t the only culture with a strange footwear fetish. In 16th-century Italy, aristocratic women wore tall platforms known as chopines that also restricted their ability to move freely. “It’s important to remember that Venetian upper-class women were sequestered and hidden from view most of the time,” as Bata Shoe Museum curator Elizabeth Semmelhack told Collectors Weekly in 2014. “They never dressed themselves. Maybe they put their own clothes on, but they didn’t choose what to wear—the representational aspects of their dress were chosen for them.
“Sometimes these women were put out like parade floats, mounted on very high chopines in splendid dresses,” she continued. “Their job was to convey the wealth of their families as well as the larger affluence of Venice. They had to walk very slowly and required the aid of two servants to navigate whatever space they were moving through.”
Today, women’s mobility is still compromised by high heels, particularly the high-end stilettos and pumps made by Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, and Christian Louboutin, whose footwear is designed to convey wealth and preciousness. “If a woman is wearing high heels, she’s not going to be running around the city delivering packages,” Wright tells me. “She’s just going to be walking slowly to tea.”
While women often choose high heels for themselves for reasons of status, the sense of power that comes with added height, the amped-up sex appeal, and the element of danger implied by a sharp heel, there’s no question that the higher the heel you wear, the harder it is to run. It’s a cliché of horror, sci-fi, and adventure films to depict a beautiful woman stumbling in the face of danger or throwing off her shoes to run from a monster. But in real life, stilettos can deny a woman a quick escape from a monstrous man—and make an everyday activity a hazard.
In Killer Fashion, Wright explains how Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie Jerome, fell to her death in 1921 trying to navigate a flight of stairs. “Jerome is my poster girl for high heels killing someone,” she says, “but I think it would be incorrect to assume that other women have not toppled off of high heels—especially if they were outrageously high, as they were for quite a bit of history.”
“My mother never spotted anybody sporting a scarf without reminding me that Isadora Duncan had her head pop off.”
Of course, when you think of garments that historically bound and inhibited women, waist-cinching corsets are probably the first to spring to mind. “Women who had super tiny waists weren’t going to be doing much heavy lifting,” Wright says. “They were going to serve more as beautiful ornaments than as labor. In the same way, French aristocrats who grew their fingernails to outrageously long lengths wanted to convey they would never need to work with their hands.”
Naturally, Wright has an entry on corset-related deaths. But exactly how much damage corsets actually did is a subject of heated debate today. Fashion Institute of Technology museum director Valerie Steele, speaking to Collectors Weekly in 2012, asserted that the stories of 1890s tight-lacing were highly exaggerated, and that most women cinched their waists no more than four inches, to a 22-inch waist. She also explained that she’s never found evidence that links those tight-laced corsets with cancer, scoliosis, or liver disease. Steele, however, admitted that corset tight-lacing could shift internal organs, cause constipation, and weaken a women’s back muscles. And corset ads of the era, Wright explains, did claim to reduce a 27-inch waist to 18 inches.
“I have heard that just wearing a corset isn’t really that bad, but ultra-tight-lacing of a corset can be a big problem,” Wright says. “In the 1890s, certain women wanted to have these incredibly waspish 18-inch waists that corset advertisements promised you. I found one case in which a woman in 1859 seemingly died because the tightness of her corset caused her ribs to pierce her liver. There were also cases of women who became so used to the support of their corset that they could no longer stand upright without them. The pressure from a tight-laced corset can also cause displacement of your internal organs, which is obviously not great for your body.”
Around the same time European and American women were trying to shrink their waistlines, they wore big cage-like undergarments beneath their skirts to make their waists seem even tinier. The crinoline, also known as a hoop skirt, posed a risk when a woman, say, ill-advisedly took a walk near a cliff and got picked up by the wind. But even ladies who kept a safe distance from precipitous drops faced perils, fire being the biggest danger.
Today, most flames are safely ensconced in lightbulbs and furnaces, or behind fireplace screens. So we forget that for millennia humans lived among open flames that provided both heat and light—fireplaces, fire pits, torches, candles, and oil lamps. Walking around in a giant, stiff skirt filled with layers of tinder-like petticoats made it even more likely your clothes would come in contact with flames, and then once your dress caught fire, your crinoline cage became your own personal death trap.
“Crinoline conflagrations, or incidents where crinolines caught on fire, were a big problem in the 1860s, to the point newspapers wrote editorials about them,” Wright says. “Crinoline fires killed around 300 women a year in England, including two of Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters. At the same time, a quote in 1861 from the magazine ‘Littell’s Living Age’ says ‘Our fair friends, when they hear of these dreadful occurrences, exclaim with the utmost sympathy, “How very shocking!” But while they say so, they are wearing crinolines themselves.’ So people had full knowledge that if you knocked over a candle in your crinoline, you would probably go up in flames. But they continued to risk it because the crinolines also made everybody’s waists look so tiny and made them seem to move so gracefully.
“Crinolines were so big that if a woman’s crinoline caught on fire and then she ran toward the door, she could trap the other people in the room, because she had to turn sideways just to enter and exit,” Wright continues. “Running straight ahead, she would get stuck and block the door. If your skirt is on fire, you’re not thinking ‘How do I maneuver effectively?'”
Until pretty recently, chandeliers and light fixtures also used lit candles, which posed another fire risk for aristocratic fashionistas. In the late 1600s, Duchesse de Fontages, mistress to Louis XIV, fell off her horse while out hunting with the king. The spill wrecked her hairdo, so she piled her hair on top of her head and fastened it in place with her leg garter—perhaps the first scrunchy. Naturally, women in the court copied her look, known as a “fontage” or “pouf,” and it evolved into an elaborate bird’s nest.
Historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell, author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, told Collectors Weekly in 2015 that the “pouf” was “halfway between a hat and a hairstyle. It was a thematic headdress made up of flowers, feathers, ribbons, gauze, and various props, reflecting events of personal or pop-cultural significance, including hit plays or scientific breakthroughs or political scandals.”
At least one French lady of the court smacked a chandelier with her towering fontage and caught fire, which led to her untimely end in 1711. Thanks to Louis XIV and his cousin Charles II, King of England, powdered wigs known as perukes were also a popular and practical fashion trend in 18th-century Europe. Shaving your head to fit the peruke meant lice would live in the wig, not on your body. Wigs could then be sent to the wigmaker to be boiled and deloused. In England, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, started another risky high-hair fad around 1760s, encouraging women to wear three-feet-tall wigs treated with flammable animal fat. The duchess barely survived a tangle with a chandelier herself.
The wigs were also just gross. “It would take a long time to construct these wigs, which would be worn for weeks,” Wright says. “The wigs would be crawling with lice, and the aristocrats had little sticks that they could slip inside the wig and use to scratch their heads. There was one horrifying incident about a woman who found a mouse that had made a home inside her wig that had begun gnawing on her skull. So, yeah, don’t leave crazy wigs on for three weeks at a time.”
Of course, in the past, people had very different ideas about cleanliness and bathing than we do now. Up until the mid-19th century, instead of taking regular baths, most Americans and Europeans covered up their body funk with heavy perfumes. Thanks to Louis Pasteur’s 1860s discovery of disease-causing microbes, cities started to consider all the trash and horse dung piling up in the streets a hazard, but it took a while for Pasteur’s Germ Theory of Disease to catch on. By 1900, the long skirts of fashionable women were still trailing through animal poop and other filth from the streets.
“At the time, people kept cows and chickens in their attics and ran whole, little farms out of apartments,” Wright says. “A 1900 issue of ‘The Lancet’ complained ‘Women sweep the streets with the skirts of their gowns … and bear with them wherever they go the abominable filth.’ Doctors started talking about the bacilli that they found on the hems of skirts, which could lead to typhoid fever or consumption. But when women started wearing shorter skirts, fashion magazines got upset about how women no longer cared about their ‘mission to be lovely.'”
Even though women—expected to be decorative for a large chunk of history—were most often fashion’s victims, Wright did come across a handful of fads that murdered men. Around the turn of the 20th century, dapper dandies—the kind associated with woman-chasing “mashers“—took to wearing stiffly starched collars that were soon nicknamed “father killers.”
“Those collars were starched so stiffly that if men passed out in them, it would cut off their air supply,” Wright explains. “They killed quite a few men in the late 1800s-early 1900s, which seemingly did not stop men from buying them. They must have looked really good. It surprises me more when I find fashionable accessories that killed men because there’s obviously a feminine notion that women should be suffering for beauty, even when that means also risking our lives. But there were a fair number that ended up killing men as well.”
One of the most bizarre stories in Killer Fashion asserts that when London haberdasher John Hetherington first introduced the top hat in 1797, it terrified onlookers and stirred up a mob. That hubbub was a one-time event, but Wright believes most of the fashion deaths in her book, like the crinoline fires and collar stranglings, happened quite frequently.
“In general, the trends in the book were adopted by a lot of people,” Wright says. “Queen Elizabeth ends up being the poster girl for ‘Lead makeup will kill you,’ but it affected a lot of her subjects. Crinolines certainly ended up killing a ton of people.”
Killer Fashion covers a wide range of deadly trends, including accessories like combustible plastic cuffs and beauty products like eye-widening belladonna drops and Jean Harlow’s toxic bleach-and-ammonia hair-dye formula. But because of space constraints, Wright had to leave a few things out. For example, in Victorian England, arsenic was used to create a green dye for dresses, shoes, gloves, and the artificial wreaths women wore—and proved deadly for the factory workers. Aniline dyes used in men’s socks gave workers bladder cancer. Celluloid, like other early plastics, was inclined to burst into flame when it got too hot, whether it was in the factory or a comb on a woman’s head.
Today, it’s easy to dismiss killer fashion as a macabre curiosity that died with those silly Victorians, but we still don’t have a very good idea what happens to the people who make our clothes. Globalization didn’t kill toxic clothing factories, it simply put them on the other side of the world.
In April 2013, 1,134 women and child workers died when the Rana Plaza factory making clothes for Western companies collapsed outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, just a few months after two factory fires had killed hundreds more. Survivors of the collapse and families of the victims filed a lawsuit against American clothing retailers including JCPenney, Wal-Mart, and Children’s Place, all of whom source clothes from Bangladesh.
Some garment factories still use a process called “sandblasting” to give clothes a distressed look. Workers breathing in the sand develop an incurable deadly disease called silicosis from sand in their lungs. The process was banned in Turkey in 2009, but according to Al Jazeera, the ban only pushed the practice to China, where garment factories were still using it in 2015.
“If you do research into the conditions the people in developing countries endure to create our clothes, you’ll learn some upsetting things,” Wright says. “You can always err on the side of caution by buying vintage clothing, or buying from local makers who you know are producing beautiful handmade things and are not working in terrible poverty. Mostly, I would check up on the companies you’re buying from. As history shows, the fashion industry doesn’t generally have the best ethical practices.”
And be wary of new, flashy chemicals. “To me, some of the scariest Killer Fashion stories are things that I could still see being put to use,” Wright says, “like the 1920s girls who would paint radium like on their nails as a manicure, or on their teeth, lips, or buttons. That’s terrifying to me because I can see myself 100 percent painting my nails or my lips for a really cool glow-in-the-dark effect.”
(To learn more, pick up Jennifer Wright’s book “Killer Fashion: Poisonous Petticoats, Strangulating Scarves and Other Deadly Garments Throughout History.” And check out the Bata Shoe Museum’s current exhibition, “Fashion Victims: The Pleasures & Perils of Dress in the 19th Century,” based on fashion historian Alison Matthews David’s 2015 book, “Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present.” Don’t miss Wright’s previous books, “It Ended Badly: Thirteen of the Worst Breakups in History” and “Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them.” If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)