History's Most Dangerous Fashion Trends | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

History’s Most Dangerous Fashion Trends

Life&Style writer Bethany Ball explores history's most dangerous fashion trends


During the 1700s, Arsenic was commonly used in dye. Carl Wilhelm Scheele developed copper arsenate, which was used to dye clothing bright yellows and greens. Society loved it for its brilliance and durability. German manufacturers took it one step further creating copper acetoarsenite, otherwise known as ‘Paris Green’ or ‘Emerald Green’. Danger emerged when the ladies and gentleman would start dancing in their brightly coloured garments. Sweat would transfer the dye onto their skin creating chemical burns and open sores. Additionally, dust containing the dye would fly into the air during rigorous dancing. With the poison now being airborne, it would be breathed in and would lead to vomiting, ulcers and nerve damage. To highlight how deadly this dye was, Punch in 1862, Punch released a ‘warning cartoon’ of two skeletons dancing ‘The Arsenic Waltz’.


Have you ever heard of the saying ‘mad as a hatter?’ Well many scholars associate this with industrial felt hat workers in 19th Century England. This is because they were exposed to mercury (a heavy metal) as part of their occupation and this led to Mercurial Disease. Hatters who were in constant contact with mercury would develop symptoms including tremors, extreme emotions and instability. Hats in the 1800s were usually made of fur, and this fur was made into felt using a process called ‘carroting’. The fur was put into an orange solution containing mercury nitrate, this was to separate the fur from the skins and shrink the pelt into a thin material. It took half a century before the Government would ban mercury use in hat making.

It begins to eat away at the skin, creating blemishes, scars, headaches, nausea, muscle damage and even baldness


During the 16th and 17th Century, many men and women painted their faces white with a paste called ‘Venetian Ceruse’. Queen Elizabeth I has been thought to have worn this paste. However, this paste consisted of acetic acid, carbon dioxide and metallic lead. When combined together this created lead carbonate, a white powdery substance. When this is applied to the face, it begins to eat away at the skin, creating blemishes, scars, headaches, nausea, muscle damage and even baldness. Definitely doing more harm than good.

Another deadly makeup was the creams, soaps and blushes of the 1920s and 1930s, which contained radium bromide. A Radior advertisement in 1918 claimed “an ever-flowing Fountain of Youth and Beauty has at last been found in the Energy Rays of Radium” and that the “Radium Rays vitalize and energize all living tissue.” Applying a radioactive substance to the face likely increase the risk of cancers amongst these women, which wouldn’t have been known until later in life. Thankfully, radium make up was only on the market for 20 years.


For ten centuries, Chinese women as children had to endure the horrific practise known as ‘foot-binding’. The practice was first seen in China in the 10th Century, where the emperor’s favourite concubine had her feet bound like hooves as she danced on a lotus flower. It became fashionable when other concubines followed suit. By the 12th Century, every girl who wished to marry needed to have bound feet. Girls would have their feet bound between the ages 4 – 6. The method involved bending the toes under the sole, essentially breaking the foot and this would be done every time the foot grew too large. Their feet would remain bound for the rest of their lives. Naturally, the girls would develop a peculiar walk, which would strength their hip, thigh and buttock muscles. This was considered physically attractive by the men of the era.

The corset put pressure on their lungs, which led to a shortness of breath and fainting


Victorian women who wanted a more slender and delicate shape (that retained the size of their hips and bosom) adopted corsets. They were so popular that they became a symbol of ones morals. ‘Strait-laced women’ were respectable, but ‘loose women’ had ‘morals as loose as their lacing’. Despite how fashionable it was, it did come with its dangers. Those who wore a corset would have a ‘heaving-bosom’, indicating how the corset put pressure on their lungs, which led to a shortness of breath and fainting. In addition to that, squeezing of the waist would force organs upwards into an unnatural position leading to constipation, indigestion and even internal bleeding.

Eye Drops

Have you ever heard of Deadly Nightshade? Well many women in the Middle Ages rubbed Deadly Nightshade in their eyes. This is because atropine, a toxin found in Deadly Nightshade, has the ability to stop your irises responding to light. It diluted women’s eyes, giving them that desirable doe-eyed look. However, by unnaturally forcing their pupils open, it would have changed their internal pressure, ultimately damaging the eye. Additionally, by having wide pupils in bright daylight, their retinas would have been exposed to an unhealthy amount of light, leading to sensory tissue damage.

Currently in my fourth year at University, studying a distance learning MA in Military History


6th December 2017 at 9:00 am