Keeping up with fashion trends can sometimes be uncomfortable and expensive. But trying a new style or two is typically not life-threatening — except in the case of these dangerous trends, that maimed (and sometimes killed) anyone brave enough to sport them.
Top image: Green dress (dyed with arsenic), Mauve boots (dyed with coal tar), Men’s polished boots (with nitrobenzene), Men’s top hat (made with mercury) Green slipper (dyed with arsenic)/ BATA Shoe Museum; Queen Elizabeth / National Portrait Gallery of London
1) Decorative Gingivitis
Today, sugar is so ubiquitous and cheap that avoiding it involves some rather complicated culinary gymnastics. But, in the Elizabethan era, sugar was not only fairly rare, it was also incredibly pricey and only those at the very top of the economic food chain could afford to indulge. Unfortunately, much like sugar had yet to become commonplace, so too had flossing and a rigorous dental cleaning schedule.
Predictably, this resulted in teeth with a less than pearly white veneer. Instead of being much bothered by the decline in their smiles, however, the trendy Elizabethans merely declared tooth decay to be so hot right now and continued on their merry way. It even spawned a temporary fad for people who could not afford sugar to fake their own brush (yes, pun intended) with gingivitis by applying a black powder to their teeth. As both sugar and toothaches soon became more common, however, the trend was not a very long-lived one.
2) A Deadly Shine
In the early 1900s, people preferred their shoes to look as shiny as possible. If you were so unlucky as to be stuck with an older pair or a pair of the wrong color, though, you could still fake the look with the help of a little shoe-polish. A particularly popular variety of shoe polish was made with a toxic, but also highly shine-inducing chemical, nitrobenzene. When the polish was completely set and dry, the wearer would notice comparatively few side-effects.
Sometimes, though, pressed for time, people would put on their shoes before the polish had completely dried. And then the effects — which could include everything from passing out to turning blue — became painfully obvious. Curiously, the effect of nitrobenzene on the wearer were even more magnified if he or she had consumed alcohol and, on occasion, a seemingly-healthy party-goer showing up to an event with freshly-polished shoes would, after a few drinks, suddenly take ill and occasionally even die.
3) Green With Envy (And Also Arsenic)
Check out this green dress! Pretty nice, right? Well, in one sense (fashion), yes, definitely. In another (staying alive), not so much.
Far before the days of pantone, this bottle-green color was sparking a craze among Victorians the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until the marigold trend. (Seriously, folks, get with me on this.) Besides being undeniably handsome, however, this particular shade of green dye was also undeniably toxic. The key ingredient in getting that bright jewel tone? Arsenic.
As unpleasant as it was for the wearers, though, arsenic poisoning was much more of a risk to the garment-dyers. The shade of green was regarded as so festive (not to mention pricey) that it was typically reserved for just the most special-of-special occasion outfits and only worn rarely. The men and women who worked on the cloth and on making the dress itself were exposed much, much more intensely. This was frequently the case, not just with dressmakers, but also notably with hatters, who often suffered slow poisoning from the mercury used in, among other things, giving top hats their notable shine.
4) Dye, Dye, Dye
Garishly-colored and brightly-patterned socks aren’t just worn today — men in the 1860s were also quite fond of socks in a rich array of patterned pinks, oranges, reds, violets, and more. Until, that is, some wearers began to be afflicted by a mysterious series of chemical burns on their feet, laid out in precisely the same patterns as those on their socks.
Though the burns were severe, sometimes so much so that their sufferers were unable to walk, doctors were mystified as to their cause. Adding to the mystery was that fact that the condition seemed to strike at random. Unlike the arsenic-based green dye or similarly toxic mauve dye made of coal tar, which would pretty much attack whoever wore it without distinction, whatever was causing the injuries was selective. Some people who wore the socks were afflicted by a painful series of burns, while others sporting the exact same footwear for the exact same amount of time, had no problems at all.
Eventually, chemists were able to trace the problem to dyes, particularly the new shades of red, used in the socks. But it wasn’t just the dyes, it was the alkaline compound used in them and how it reacted to human sweat. While most people’s sweat is slightly acidic, a small minority have sweat that is more alkaline. When this alkaline sweat came in contact with the dye, some of the dye would dissolve and burn the skin.