I think we are all very much aware of the problems and dangers associated with the production of textiles and clothing. They range from unsafe working conditions to pollutants caused by dyes and other processes. But what about the clothes themselves? Can our garments be dangerous to our health?
According to author Alison Matthews David, the answer is an unfortunate yes. There is a long history of poisonous colors, flammable fabrics, and plastics that combust. But this is all in the past, one might say. Today there are laws to protect us. Don’t be so sure!
When thinking of the dangers of clothing, a good starting place is with the producers of fashion. This cartoon from 1863 shows that little has changed when it comes to how fashion is produced. It is the makers who toil in dangerous conditions and who must work to exhaustion just to make enough money on which to survive. While we’d like to think such practices are firmly in the past, all we have to do is watch the news to see that abuses in the clothing industry continue.
Perhaps we have overcome one danger from the past, that of catching disease from our clothes. When skirts dragged the ground, all sorts of trash and microbes were gathered just from walking on the street. This 1900 cartoon in Puck magazine helps illustrate the problem.
Sometimes the dangers from clothing have been part of the deliberate act of manufacture. People knew that arsenic was poisonous, but the fears of it were set aside when it was discovered that arsenic made a lovely shade of green dye.
People knew that the dye was dangerous, but we all must suffer a bit for fashion. The above cartoon was published in Punch, 1862.
Problematic ingredients have also been used in cosmetics. The chemicals in hair dye and mascara could lead to blindness.
Probably the most famous example of death by fashion is that of dancer Isadora Duncan. In 1927 as she sped off in a car, she wrapped her long silk scarf around her neck, the ends streaming behind her. The fringe became entwined in the wheel, and Duncan’s neck was snapped.
One of the most mocked skirt fashions, the hobble skirt, was also a dangerous fashion. There were examples of women being trampled and drowned while wearing the style, which was fashionable from 1910 through 1914.
Fire was one a major danger. In the days before electric light, stages were lit with gaslights, and especially dangerous where the footlights. Ballerina costumes were highly flammable, being made of gauze and tulle, and fires were common.
Women wearing the cage crinoline were also at risk for burns, as the space under the cage acted as a chimney, allowing flames to quickly race up a skirt.
Today we have all sorts of laws and regulations that are meant to keep us safe from the clothes we wear. It would be foolish to think that our clothing is without danger, however. It may be safer to wear, but what about the safety of the makers? What about the toxins used in the production of clothing? The clothing industry needs quite a bit of improvement before our clothes are truly free from dangers.