Last week I visited an exhibition at the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC. Eco-Fashion: Going Green presented a number of beautiful clothes, and far more disturbing facts about the clothing industry.
• The US consumes approximately 84 pounds of textiles per person per year.
• The average garment purchased in the US is only worn six times before being discarded: the cycle of "Fast Fashion."
• Over 8,000 different chemicals are currently being used to turn raw materials into textiles. Many are irreversibly damaging to people and the environment. *
Sobering, yes, and sadly nothing new. By the middle of the 19th c., more and more clothing was being mass-produced rather than individually hand-sewn for the wearer, with technological advances such as sewing machines and high-speed textile looms bringing the industrial revolution to fashion. Suddenly style was available to everyone, rather than a privileged few.
Innovation also came in new colors. In 1856, an eighteen-year-old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) accidentally created the first aniline dye, a vivid purple dubbed mauveine, and from this sprang a whole spectrum of colors. These new dyes were brighter and bolder than any old-fashioned mineral pigments, and soon all fashionable ladies – whether dressed in common calico or imported silk - were wearing the vivid hues like so many gaudy parrots.
There was only one catch: that lovely, brilliant shade of Perkin green (one of the most popular of the new colors) contained arsenic as a by-product of its manufacture. Not only were the dye-workers sickening and eventually dying from the aniline dyes, but those who wore the fabric daily against their skin or breathed the fumes were also at risk. By 1870, the threat was widely known – see this grim Punch cartoon from 1862 of stylish skeletons ready for the "New Dance of Death" - but the arsenic-based dyes remained in use in clothing throughout the 19th c. Their fall from grace wasn't due to public outrage, but to fashion, as newer dyes and colors gradually replaced the old ones.
The fashion plate, above, contains an arsenic double-whammy: not only were the day dresses shown made of fabric treated with aniline dyes, but the printer's ink that was used in the reproduction likely contained the same chemicals. Going green was never so deadly....
* Facts from the exhibition brochure.
Top: Fashion plate from Godey's Lady Book, 1861.
Update: For more about an earlier toxic green used during the Regency era, check out this post over at Jane Austen's World. Clearly those involved in chemical colors didn't learn much from history!