Friday, June 4, 2010

A Deadly Shade of Green

Friday, June 4, 2010
Susan reporting:

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.

For example:
• 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!

14 comments:

Miss_Tami_Lee said...

Now that gives a new spin to the phrase "drop dead gorgeous"

Lady Burgley said...

The Victorians were some of the worst polluters in history.The arsenic based dyes were also used in printing wallpaper and in house paints. Even Pre-Raph William Morris, who preached going back to the 'old ways', used the toxic chemical dyes:

http://www.popularscience.co.uk/features/feat17.htm

Marilyn said...

So they wore Arsenic in the dye of their dresses and used Belladona in their eyes to dilate the Pupils! A very poisonous Century for Beauty!

Carolyn said...

«Going green was never so deadly....»

I wonder if all the ways we try to green today will end with the same result …?

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Miss Tami -"Drop dead gorgeous", indeed!

Lady B. - Thanks for the link. I'd read about the paint and wallpaper, too, but not to that extent. And interesting that the writer made the same comment about the fashion print and the printer's ink!

Marilyn - You have to add the white lead in the make-up too, and coal tar in the early mascaras.

Carolyn - "I wonder if all the ways we try to green today will end with the same result?" That was one of the points of the FIT exhibition -- how very hard it is to be completely green. For example, faux furs and leathers are kinder to the animal population, but are made of polyester that never decomposes. Or if we all tried to make do with less clothing, then the entire world-wide economy would be plunged into even worse shape than it is now. No easy answers!

Julie said...

Love Love Love your blog!!!

Julie
www.ridingaside.blogspot.com

Always Trista said...

For some reason I thought right away of the green velvet ensemble that Scarlett O'Hara made out of her family's curtains. I bet that would have been the arsenic-green, too. Right time, anyway. Or would've been if it weren't just a move. LOL! Well, you know what I mean!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

And more deadly decoration: one of our fav readers and fellow-bloggers, Vic at Jane Austen's World, recently wrote about an earlier toxic green in use during Regency times:

http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/03/05/emerald-green-or-paris-green-the-deadly-regency-paint/

Thanks for the info, Vic! :)

Leslie Carroll said...

Fabulous post, Susan! I consider myself a student of costume history -- but I didn't know any of this. Thanks for the terrific education!

nightsmusic said...

I know at one point, women would ingest small amounts of arsenic to give their skin a porcelain, almost translucent appearance. And in Victorian times (I think) it was mixed with chalk and something else to make face powder. But those were both done with knowledge. I can't imagine finding out you were poisoned by your clothes.

Then again, there is the Mad Hatter and mercury...

taketimetoshine said...

I'm flabberghasted at the fact the average outfit only gets worn six times... and wondering what percentage of the discarded clothing is donated to charity/thrift stores vs the trash

nightsmusic said...

I want to know who can afford to wear an outfit only six times! I'm still wearing things I bought six years ago! (Which doesn't say a whole lot for my weight loss attempts, does it?)

Amanda said...

I remember looking this up a while ago.....
I think the deadly shade of green was mentioned in Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (IIRC)

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Amanda, now that you mention it, I think you're right. Wonderful book...:)

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