Green with Envy:
The Dangers of 19th
Century Fashion

Source: Tom Woodward

We all know some people will do anything for fashion. In the 19th Century, a dangerous chemical was often added to clothing: Arsenic.

From punishing your feet in high heels to freezing in a short skirt on a winter’s day: most of us have made questionable choices for the sake of fashion. But some take it to a terrifying degree. In the 19th Century, a dangerous chemical was often added to clothing: Arsenic.

The Victorian love affair with arsenic began after people realised it had the ability to dye fabric a bright, intense green. It quickly became a popular dye to colour the ballgowns and the floral headdresses of the bourgeoisie. Nobody was overly concerned by its toxicity, until a number of strange and deadly incidents began to occur.

The most notable incident was that which led to the untimely demise of a Miss Matilda Scheurer, a young artificial flower maker who routinely handled arsenic for work.

She endured a violent, convulsive death from vomiting, and an autopsy showed that her insides, her fingernails and the whites of her eyes were all saturated in the familiar green of arsenic. Some medical professionals began to denounce the use of arsenic, and some socialites even campaigned against it, but their complaints and research lacked enough traction.

“The arsenic-wearing woman carries in her skirts poison enough to slay the whole of the admirers she may meet with in half a dozen ball-rooms.”
British Medical Journal, 1862

It was not just the bustle of skirts and the wreaths of flowers that bore the poison. Arsenic was also used as an ingredient in make-up, and was a common skin lightener, as well as finding its way into wallpapers and home decorations.

Much like the green fairy one sees after drinking far too much absinthe, the danger of arsenic seemed too ephemeral for most 19th Century fashionistas; something altogether ridiculous, to be scoffed at, until one happened to get in close.

Eventually, much of Europe banned the use of arsenic as a pigment, with Scandinavia leading the way.

Britain, however, did not ban the substance outright. It was only the advent of cheaper, synthetic dyes that proved the final nail in the coffin.

To this day, in many cases, green is a sign of bad luck among seamstresses. In the 2005 documentary Signé Chanel, seamstresses from the famous company commented that the colour is best avoided. It may be that this is a hangover from the days when green, quite literally, was something to die for.