Serendipity is the name of the game for historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook in their podcast. The Rest is History launched in November 2020 and with multiple episodes often released each week, the scope of the subjects they have covered is breathtaking: Pompeii, medieval science, Rasputin, the CIA. Sometimes, as with recent analysis on the rise of Vladimir Putin or the mini-series marking the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, there’s a clear news hook for what they discuss, but sometimes randomness rules supreme. The upshot is I now know more about “killer fashion” – clothes that resulted in the death of their wearers – than I ever wanted to.
Holland and Sandbrook’s guest in this instance is Alison Matthews David, author of Fashion Victims, who begins by cheerfully explaining how the tutus of 19th-century ballerinas were so flammable that thousands of dancers burned to death. Flimsy layers of gossamer skirts, gas lamps and a blasé approach to theatrical fire safety proved a deadly combination – an 1868 article in the Lancet refers to “the holocaust of ballet girls”. One might think only working-class dancers faced the grisly fate of death-by-skirt, but high-born ladies had no escape: the iconic crinoline dress design was a natural fire trap, causing the untimely deaths of Archduchess Mathilde of Austria and Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters.
More horrors await: shoes designed to show off excruciatingly bound feet, hats laced with mercury, the toxic allure of emerald green. “In the 19th century, green will probably kill you,” we’re told – thanks to the arsenic in the dye. A ballgown could potentially contain enough arsenic to kill 200 people. Most terrifying of all is that even while these poisonous garments were in fashion, people were writing of the dangers, yet they kept wearing them. Lest we think this is just a history lesson, harmful clothes production techniques persist today – and lipsticks still contain lead. Unsettling and eye-opening, this is probably not the best episode to listen to while doing laundry.
The Rest is History
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder