Squeezing into skinny jeans, tottering about on 5in heels, you think you've got it bad when it comes to suffering for fashion! Our forebears risked far more dire consequences from top to toe for following the latest fashion trends...

1. Hats

Engraving of Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland

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Fashion trends can definitely be dangerous! Ever wondered why the Mad Hatter was mad? Well it could be because of mercury poisoning – the toxic element was used in the production of felt. The poor hatters were subject to tremors, irratability and mental instability.

 

2. Tall Hair

illustration of lady with hugely tall hair supported by servant

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Back in the 17th century it was highly fashionable to have VERY tall hair. We’re not just talking Amy Winehouse-beehive height either, we’re talking serious towers of tresses. However, as the elaborate styles were dressed with lard, the hairdos often housed vermin, which could bite at night (and no doubt itched a great deal too!). Not only that, because many of the ballrooms were lit with candles, there was the real risk that a lady’s hair could actually catch fire! There’s even a report in a London paper of a woman’s wig and headdress being struck by lightning because of the height of the hairpins, which subsequently set her hair alight!

 

3. Combs

vintage illustration of young woman at dressing table

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As if wearing highly flammable hairstyles wasn’t enough danger for the fashionable young lady of the Victorian era! By the late 1800s, decorative combs worn in the hair were often made of the combustible material celluloid instead of the more expensive tortoiseshell. In fact the celluloid was so flammable that just mere proximity to a heat source could cause a comb to burst into flames or even explode.

 

4. Face Powder

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

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Those fashionable folks in days gone by used face powder made of lead to achiev e the white pallor that was so desirable. Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I show how fashionable the white complexion was even among the Royal ranks. However, the poisonous lead ate away at the skin, causing it to darken, and break out in lesions, not to mention making hair fall out. Of course, this just led to the application of more powder to cover those imperfections up. If the eyebrows fell out, ladies sometimes used eyebrow wigs made of mouse fur.

 

5. Collar

Illustration of victorian gentleman's collar

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Surely the humble collar couldn’t be dangerous, could it? Seems so, and the high heavily starched detachable collars worn by the fashionable Edwardian gentleman could sometimes prove deadly. There are instances of men – no doubt after a port or two – falling asleep with their head tilted forward, and subsequently dying as the collar cut off the blood supply to the carotid artery.

 

6. Green fabric

Two Victorian ladies looking in a window, one with blue dress one with green

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Don’t be jealous about that beautiful green shade of fabric your great-great-grandmother wore, instead be sorry for the poor souls who dyed the material for a living. The Victorian dye was made from arsenic. The wearer may only have suffered very mild effects like skin rashes if they were lucky, but the poor dyers, were often poisoned. In fact newspapers of the time ran cartoons of skeletons adorned with the dangerous green gowns.

 

7. Corset

Vintage engraving of a young woman wearing a corset from the late victorian early edwardian period.

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Underneath that killer green dress, there’d no doubt be a corset, and in the late 19th century there was a list of almost 100 diseases attributed to the wearing of these foundation garments – from organ damage to fainting and internal bleeding. One poor woman in America even died when her corset bones rubbed razor sharp and pierced her heart. In fact the limiting nature of the corset even led to the rational dress movement of largely middle class women, who called for less restricting undergarments.

 

8. Crinoline

Illustration of two Victorian women wearing large Crinoline dresses

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Now we come to the crinoline, that uncomfortable looking hooped skirt worn by Victorian ladies. Another fire hazard for the unsuspecting, given it’s size. In fact the wife of American poet Longfellow died after a fallen candle set her dress alight. Two of Oscar Wilde’s half sisters also died after a quick waltz around the dance floor when one of their swirling crinoline skirts caught fire, and, in the ensuing panic, so did her sister’s. Not only that, there was also the danger that you may get tangled up in carriage-wheel spokes. Ouch!

 

9. Shoes

Illustration of shiny Victorian button-up boot

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In the early 1900s the fashion for shiny shoes left some trendies with more than a sheen. If they put their footwear on before the toxic polish had dried it could lead to the wearer turning blue and fainting. Alcohol could make the effect even worse, and sometimes led to fatalities among the fashionable partygoers.