Giving new meaning to the phrase ‘fashion victim’, a 35-year-old Australian woman had to be cut out of a pair of skinny jeans after developing a condition called compartment syndrome. It’s not the first time someone has succumbed to a dangerous style trend: “They’ve always been around, since the Stone Ages,” says Summer Strevens, the author of Fashionably Fatal. “It’s when fashion is taken to an extreme; I call it vanity insanity.” Here are five of the deadliest fads in history.
The undergarment that shrank waistlines long before Spanx had an influence on language as much as women’s bodies: it spawned the term ‘strait-laced’, lending a Victorian respectability to its wearer, as well as ‘loose women’ – implying that those who were corset-less had morals as free as their lacing. In her book, Strevens says that “corsets caused indigestion, constipation, frequent fainting from difficulty in breathing and even internal bleeding… inhibited breathing, giving rise to the Victorian ‘heaving bosom’, was indicative of pressure upon the lungs, while the other internal organs, forced to shift from their natural position to accommodate the new skeletal shape, were subject to damage.” In 1874, a list was published attributing 97 diseases to corset wearing, including heightened hysteria and melancholy; between the late 1860s and the early 1890s, Strevens says, the medical journal The Lancet published at least an article a year on the medical dangers of tight lacing. And it didn’t end with breathing difficulties or organ damage: in 1903, 42-year-old mother-of-six Mary Halliday died abruptly after a seizure. The New York Times reported that during her autopsy, “two pieces of corset steel were found in her heart, their total length being eight and three-quarter inches. Where they rubbed together the ends were worn to a razor edge by the movement of her body.”
The structured petticoat did more than just enhance a silhouette. During the 19th Century, at the peak of the crinoline’s popularity, there were several high-profile deaths by skirt fire. In July 1861, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow rushed to help his wife after her dress caught fire. According to the Boston Daily Advertiser, “While seated at her library table, making seals for the entertainment of her two youngest children, a match or piece of lighted paper caught her dress, and she was in a moment enveloped in flames.” She died the following day. Oscar Wilde’s two half-sisters also died of burns after they went too close to an open fire in ball gowns. One case, in 1858, prompted the New York Times to proclaim that “an average of three deaths per week from crinolines in conflagration, ought to startle the most thoughtless of the privileged sex; and to make them, at least, extraordinarily careful in their movements and behaviour, if it fails… to deter them from adopting a fashion so fraught with peril”.
Invented in the 19th Century, the detachable collar meant men didn’t have to change their shirt every day. It was also starched to a stiffness that proved lethal. “They were called ‘father killer’, or ‘Vatermörder’ in German,” says Strevens. “They could cut off the blood supply to the carotid artery. Edwardian men would wear them as a fashion accessory – they’d go to their gentleman’s club, have a few glasses of port and nod off in a winged armchair, with their heads tilted forward. They actually suffocated.” One 1888 obituary in The New York Times was headlined ‘Choked by his collar’: a man called John Cruetzi had been found dead in a park, and “the Coroner thought the man had been drinking, seated himself on a bench, and fell asleep. His head dropped over on his chest and then his stiff collar stopped the windpipe and checked the flow of blood through the already contracted veins, causing the death to ensue from asphyxia and apoplexy.”
The expression ‘mad as a hatter’ was in use 30 years before Lewis Carroll popularised it with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Mercury poisoning was an occupational hazard for hat makers in the 18th and 19th Centuries: the chemical was used in the production of felt, and prolonged exposure led to what was termed the ‘mad hatter disease’. Symptoms included tremors and pathological shyness and irritability – leading to doubts that Carroll’s eccentric milliner was a sufferer, with an article in the British Medical Journal suggesting “it could scarcely be said that the Mad Hatter suffered to any great extent from the desire to go unnoticed”.
Said to have been inspired by a 10th Century court dancer who wrapped her feet in silk to perform for the Emperor, Chinese foot-binding was officially banned in 1912. Yet some continued the practice – a means of displaying status, revealing that a woman didn’t need her feet to work – in secret. The British photographer Jo Farrell has documented the last surviving women with bound feet for her Living History project. She told the BBC: “I feel so many people talk about how barbaric the tradition was, but it was also a tradition that empowered women. It gave them a better life… one of the most important things that came across was that they have a pride in what happened to them.” Reshaping feet is not restricted to China, however – according to Strevens, “in earlier centuries, ladies of fashion were known to have had their ‘little’ toes amputated, slipping their feet into ever-more-pointed fashionable footwear”. She argues that while historic practices might sound barbaric, women today are still enduring pain for fashion, referencing “the contemporary vogue for the surgical shortening, even amputation of healthy toes, in order to fit into today's sky-high stilettos”. There are still plenty of fashion victims in the 21st Century. “Although we haven’t got corsets or crinolines any more, there are now people having their ribs removed to get a smaller waist.”
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