Fashion has been hugely important for centuries and by the 19th century, when a women wanted to be at their most elegant it was at to communicate her grace, beauty and status. What the women of this time didn’t realise was the outfits that had become the fashion trend were most likely going to contribute to an untimely death. Under the outer fabrics, they wore crinolines—stiff petticoats that gave dresses a bell-like shape and alleviated the weight of the heavy fabrics of the outer layer of the outfit. Other materials, such as cotton and horsehair were used for dresses too. Each of the materials mentioned are highly flammable and given that lighting and heat came from open flame women were quite literally going up in them!
Poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, watched his wife, Fanny, burn alive due to her dress catching alight and Oscar Wild’s half-sisters dresses caught fire while they were dancing at a party.
Thousands of women were dying because of the clothes they wore—because of fashion. A plentiful supply of oxygen got trapped between the multiple layers of fabric deeming it impossible to extinguish the flames by a simple ‘stop, drop and roll’. Unable to undo the laces or buttons in time was another issue.
If the flammable fabrics weren’t enough, there was another danger. Green was the colour to be seen wearing and arsenic was the method of dying fabric this preferred and fashionable colour. Little did they know at the time that the chemical was poisonous but adding to the mix was the fact that when arsenic catches light, it burns toxic fumes. So, if the flames didn’t kill the woman who were alight, the fumes certainly had a chance of doing that.
Artificial flowers also became popular during this time, again arsenic was used as a colourant to make them look more authentic. Daily exposure to arsenic causes poisoning and a premature demise. Convulsions, vomiting and the whites of your eyes turning green are some symptoms, before death ensues.
There was a choice in life for working Victorian women of the time but death by fire seems pretty certain. Housekeepers were, it seems, susceptible to death by burning dresses because Victorian homes were filled with open-flames and were build from flammable materials. If servants caught fire there was a risk the whole house would burn to the ground. On the other end of the pay scale, ballerinas had to wear massive hooped dresses and perform on stages lit by naked flames. Their dresses were made from bobbinet, cotton, muslin, gauze and tarlatan (all of which are flammable). Dancers were lighting up the stage, literally, but unfortunately they were dying too!
Fashion changes over time and late in the 19th century skirt styles became slimmer. This kept dresses out the reach of naked flames and death rates reduced.