Support 100 years of independent journalism.

The Rest is History is breathtaking in its scope

This podcast with Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook teaches you about Pompeii, Vladimir Putin and “killer fashion”, including flammable tutus.

By Rachel Cunliffe

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
Apple Podcasts/Spotify

[See also: Life Goals is a joyous journey through our desert island kicks]

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Content from our partners
High streets remain vitally important to local communities
The future of gas
Taxing non-doms fairly would raise billions

This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder