Deadliest Fashion From History

Deadliest Fashion From History

Aimee Heidelberg - August 7, 2023

Welcome! Settle into this chair. While you relax, I’m going to stab this needle into your skin somewhere between 50 to 3,000 times each minute. While I do that, I’m going to make sure it leaves an ink deposit that never, ever goes away unless you undergo a painful removal procedure. Now, do you want those needles to make the shape of a fire-breathing bear or a bunny rabbit? Enjoy your tattoo! Tattooing has become reasonably mainstream in recent decades. But thinking about the process, it is a pretty painful process in the name of fashion, and personal style. There is a long history of voluntarily accepting the risk of pain in the name of style or cultural tradition. Some historic fashions have done far more than leaving a permanent imprint like a tattoo. They left their wearers maimed, ill, or dead. But they left a good-looking corpse.

Deadliest Fashion From History
New Kingdom kohl jar with applicator. Museu Egizio, CC 2.5.

Ancient Egypt – Kohl

Egyptian tomb art has depicted gods and monsters, battles and glory, but they have also given archaeologists insight into the activity and everyday lives of Egyptians. This includes details about ancient Egyptian fashion. Tomb art depicts fashions from the shendyt or schenti (loincloth) of the common man to the elaborate robes and jewels of nobility. But one common fashion trend seems to have been used by Egyptians of all social classes and throughout its history; kohl eye liner, identified in art dating all the way from 3100 BCE. Kohl was used as an eye liner, enhancing the eyes, protecting it from the glaring Nile region sun, and protecting Egyptians from eye infections (an ancient belief proven with modern science). Nobility used a higher quality kohl, while Egyptians with limited money used cheaper knock-ff kohl that had added soot from fires or other additives to stretch out the product.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Model of offering bearer. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mary Harrsch (2006, CC 2.0)

The Trouble with Kohl

Kohl eye liner used a variety of ingredients, from burnt almonds, black manganese oxide, malachite, ochre, but at times would also be made of galena, which contains a lead sulfide, or the slightly less toxic antimony sulfide. Egyptians applied it by wetting the kohl, often by using saliva, and painting it in lines around both upper and lower eyelids. Over time, the exposure to lead would be toxic. Lead poisoning isn’t an instant killer, but accumulates over time, even decades. The Mayo Clinic says lead poisoning can lead to memory deficiency, joint and muscle pain, high blook pressure, headaches, and at high levels, it can be fatal. Lead is toxic but the Egyptians weren’t aware of its long-term health effects. It produced the desired cosmetic effect. It was so commonly used that French scientists found lead present in a sample of fifty-two ancient Egyptian kohl jars.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Portrait of a woman on Roman fresco from Herculaneum ruins, 1st century CE. Public domain.

Ancient Roman Rosy Cheeks

Romans loved a healthy, rosy cheek, and when nature didn’t supply the right shade, Romans, most often women, achieved it by using blush. Romans would tint blush with vegetable dyes, poppies, or mulberry juice. They could also use rose petals, Tyrian vermillion, red ochre, wine residue, or red ochre to get the look. Some of the blush and other cosmetics would use lead, to get the smooth, vibrant effect favored across the ancient world. While the lead tints were obviously not ideal, given its toxic buildup over time, it helped them achieve the glowing look they favored (until it lead to skin discoloration, hair loss, and other health problems). Blush had to be subtle, though – the Roman fashion was to only have a subtle hint of color, not obviously painted cheeks. Their cheeks properly tinted, they were well groomed and ready to show off their “look” at the Forum.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Cinnabar on dolomite. JJ Harrison ( 2009, CC 3.0)

Deadly Blush in Ancient Rome

Lead wasn’t the only toxic part of ancient Roman blush. Some types of Roman blush included cinnabar. It produced the most pure, bright red, giving Roman blush users a healthy glow. A glow that lasted, anyway, until they dropped dead from long-term cinnabar exposure. Despite its pleasant name that invokes spicy sweet cinnamon, it is a deadly combination of red mercuric sulfide and red lead. Think about lead’s toxic properties and add mercury on top of it. Mercury and lead would be absorbed into the user’s skin, and accumulate in the body over time, causing health problems like skin rashes, brain damage, sensory loss, and kidney damage. It can also make the skin appear grey, giving Roman users quite the opposite of the rosy, healthy glow they intended.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Portrait of an unknown woman. Nichollas Hillard, c. 1585-1590, public domain.

Lead-Based Makeup, for the Deathly Pale Look

As the ancient world moved into the Renaissance, surely people would understand the health hazards of using lead makeup, right? Surely, they would see how it was discoloring the skin and causing people to lose their hair! Alas, no. While people across the ages knew lead based makeup was bad to wear, if not for their health, at least for their skin and appearance. AS lead was absorbed into the body, the skin would grow yellowish, wrinkled and leathery. To remedy the decreasing quality of their skin, they covered it with more lead-based makeup. It attacks the brain/ nervous system, causes headaches, anemia, paralysis, insomnia, and contributes to skin conditions. Ironically, people back to ancient times knew lead was toxic and often sought safer alternatives. French women in the 1700s were advised to avoid lead makeup. The cosmetics weren’t as good, but at least the alternatives wouldn’t eat their skin.

Deadliest Fashion From History

Fashionable Complexion: Queen Elizabeth I and Venetian Ceruse

Queen Elizabeth I wasn’t just a revered English ruler, she used fashion to represent the strength and wealth of her realm. English fashion favored light hair (fortunately she had the red hair of her father, Henry VIII), hooded eyes, and the Queen used Venetian Ceruse makeup to get her famous porcelain skin. The white lead in Venetian Ceruse wasn’t instantly lethal, but the toxins slowly accumulated over time. If Queen Elizabeth I experienced the common side effects of her glamorous makeup, she would have faced skin discoloration, hair loss, and her teeth would have rotted into discolored nubs. But there was a solution to this problem – slather more of the bright white makeup over the mangled skin, until the pockmarked, leathery skin was no longer visible. This “solution” made the problem worse, of course, but it looked good! Venetian Ceruse holds the Guinness World Record for “Most toxic makeup.”

Deadliest Fashion From History
Reconstruction of a 16th century Venetian chopine. Rama and Shoe Museum of Lausanne (2015, CC2.0)

Fashion Reaches New Heights: Chopines

The platform shoe went extreme in 16th century fashion. The chopine took a stylish shoe and set it on a shockingly high platform that added several inches to the wearer’s height. Initially chopines had soles elevated a few inches/ centimeters, enough to keep the delicate, decorative part of the shoe out of the street muck. Over time, they became a fashion statement, popular in Italy (especially the Venice region), France, England, and Spain. They gained popularity in paved-road cities making them more decorative than functional. Chopine, which their excessive height and decoration, made walking difficult. But the point of the chopine wasn’t to serve as comfortable footwear to wear on hikes in the countryside. Instead, the extreme platform deliberately hampered mobility. The fashionable chopine usually paired with dresses elongated to cover the legs and ankles, making walking a difficult task.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Venetian Chopine, 17th century (Cho, 2021, 4.0)

Fashion Free Falls

Fashion is often risky. But rarely does that risk include falling from great heights. Some chopine platforms reached ridiculous heights of 50 cm (18-20 inches). When tangled in the fabric of the elongated dresses, it created a tripping hazard. People who wore the extreme chopine usually had a servant help them keep upright. These ankle-twisting shoes were for the elite who could afford the extra fabric for a dress or highly impractical shoes, and shoes that actually stopped people from walking. These people wanted to show they had no expectation of doing labor – or even moving all that much. The height of the chopine became so ridiculous that a 15th century Venetian law restricted the height of the fabulous footwear. This law, however, was pretty much ignored and unenforced. Chopines continued proclaiming the social status (or the appearance of social status) of the fashionista into the early 1700s.

Deadliest Fashion From History
King Louis XIV, ‘Follower of Hyacinthe Rigaud,’ 18th century. Public Domain.

Powdered Wigs

The powdered wig, or peruke, has a rather ghastly origin. Syphilis rampaged through Europe in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Amid oozing sores, addled brain, and ghastly rashes, hair loss was one of the most devastating side effects. Wigs became a common – though discreet – way to cover up the balding head. But wigs really took off in 1655. King Louis XIV of France started experiencing Ye Olde Male Pattern Baldness (or a touch of Ye Olde Syphilis) and donned a wig. Charles II of England adopted the style. From there, the trend caught on in high society (and those who wanted to be in high society), even used by those with a head full of hair and bloom of youthful color. Peruke wearers sprinkled them with powder and lovely scents. Wigs grew bigger and more extreme, some costing 800 shillings. The bigger the wig, the higher the status.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wearing powdered wig at age 13 (c.1770). Public domain.

Fashion Solves One Problem But Creates Another

Wigs had a benefit beyond cosmetic cover-up; they kept lice away. People who sported wigs often shaved their hair to ensure the elaborate peruke would fit properly. The lice and bugs, deprived of cozy habitat, moved into the wig. Wigs could be boiled clean and have the nits picked out of them while off the owner’s head, making delousing an easier, less painful process. But the health hazard of a powdered peruke outweighs the delousing benefits. Enter the ancient fashion hazard, lead. White lead powder gave the peruke a clean, glowing white. Fortunately, most people wore naturally colored wigs for everyday use, sparing most fashionistas from repeated exposure. Powdering was mainly for the upper classes, nobility, members of the Royal Court, or people attending formal functions.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Marie Angelique Scorailles, Duchess of Fontanges (c. 1670 – 1700). Public Domain.


17th century hairstyles took a “more is more” approach. The bigger, the taller, the better. To add height to the hair or wigs already piled on their heads, women wore fontange. These stylish caps perched on the back of the head and sported a wire-stiffened brim covered with luxurious fabrics, feathers, lace, ribbons, and other finery that stuck straight up into the air. King Louis XIV’ mistress, Angelique Scorailles, Duchess de Fontanges, inspired fontange when she lost a headdress during a horse ride, and tied a ribbon around it to keep her hair in place. The king liked the look. When he made her a duchess, the trend of beribboned headwear was born. As the fontange rippled through the fashion world, the hair-binding ribbon that captured stray curls evolved into the delicate, high indoor cap. A high fontange was difficult to balance, but this didn’t hinder its popularity.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Maria Luisa Gabriela de Saboya in a frontange (c. 1712). Miguel Jacinto Melendez. Public domain.

Fashion Hotheads

According to legend, in 1711 a high style woman of the French court wore a spectacular fontange to the palace. The grand rooms of the palace used open-flame chandeliers and wall sconces to create a well-lit, glittering effect. But the woman misjudged the height of the flame in relation to her fontange. It lit on fire, and because the fontange was so high, she didn’t notice until the fire had grown out of control. She died from her injuries. Fontange, though fashionable, were tall and made of highly flammable decoration. Fontange fire may have been a common hazard for fashionable women. In November 1711, Sophie von Hannover wrote, “There is no news here but that good Mrs von Ilten has burnt neck, face and hands; her fontange caught fire, she stared and fell and did not think to throw it off as I use to do…”

Deadliest Fashion From History
Top hat, c. 1835, made of fur and silk. Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain.

Fashion Goes Mad for Hats

Hats in the 1800s were becoming works of art unto themselves. Hats did more than protect the wearer from the elements, they indicated social status, and could make a bold fashion statement. From the dignified top hat to the hefty, everyday brimmed hat, felt-constructed hats were the rule for 19th century heads. Hat felt commonly used animal hairs removed from their hides, heated and moistened then exposed to heat. The separation process had been done with urine, but French hat makers found that one hat maker taking mercury to help treat syphilis somehow made the hairs more soft and pliable, which after felting became a tough, durable fabric that was perfect for a sturdy hat. Mercury became a valued element in the fashionable hat making process.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Mercury in a vial. Dnn87 (CC3.0).

No, Fashion Literally Went Mad because of Hats

As fashionable as the hats were, they were killing their craftspeople. “Mad Hatter’s Disease” is a well-known consequence of 19th century hat making. The skilled hat artisans crafting these felt masterpieces became slowly poisoned by their own creations. The felt was processed with mercury nitrate, a process called secretage or carroting. Mercury nitrate stiffened the animal fur, letting it mat together in a stronger bond. Mercury wasn’t causing too much harm until they steamed the fabric. Hatmakers inhaled the vapor. Over time, mercury built up in their system, and they became the “Mad Hatters” of lore. Mercury nitrate is a neurotoxin that causes headaches, personality changes, tremors, gastrointestinal problems, delirium, and “hatters shakes,” tremors and anxiety that come along with mercury toxicity. Danbury, Connecticut had a thriving hat-making community, resulting in an alarmingly high number of tremors and mercury poisoning symptoms, so many they became dubbed the “Danbury Shakes.”

Deadliest Fashion From History
Green dress over crinoline, c. 1868. MONNIN Jaques (2015, CC 3.0).

Scheele’s Green for Vibrant Fabrics

Green was all the rage in Victorian fashion. Advances in dye chemistry led to Scheele’s Green, a vibrant, bright color that made a bold fashion statement that didn’t fade over time. Swedish chemist Karl Scheele discovered the formula for a stable dye using copper arsenite in the 1770s. Scheele’s Green (also known as Paris Green) quickly grew popular, showing up in the most fashionable houses in wallpaper, paint, toys, and other home decor. The color could also be used in luxury goods like artificial flowers and candy. The dye worked amazingly well on textiles. Prior to Scheele’s Green, green dyes would fade rather quickly, but finally fine fashionistas had a bright, pure green that would last through wash and wear. Unfortunately, the chemistry behind Scheele’s Green held a nasty little secret.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Public health book showing effects of arsenic green dye, 1859. Wellcome Trust, CC 4.0.

Scheele’s Green Was Poison

One of the main components in Scheele’s Green was arsenic. Prolonged exposure to arsenic caused headaches, cramping, vomiting, and as symptoms worsened, could be fatal. Scheele knew about the potential toxicity but profit superseded concern. While cases of unintentional arsenic poisoning and death are documented in the textile manufacturing facilities that worked with the dye every day, or where children played on dyed carpets or when the green flecked off wallpaper, to be inhaled or ingested in dust, wearing the color was less likely to kill the wearer than simply to cause discomfort. Side effects of Scheele’s Green on clothing included nail discoloration, rash, painful skin lesions, color leeching onto the skin, and in the worst cases, open, oozing sores. By the early 1900s, governments started to limit the use of arsenic for ingestion and in everyday items, but by then the Scheele’s Green trend had played itself out.

Deadliest Fashion From History

Fashion’s Floating Clouds: Tutus Become a Ballerina’s uniform

Poufy, floating tutus are synonymous with the elegant ballerina. The ethereal skirts take an extra second to come down after a leap make dancers appear to be floating. Tutus, made out of gauze, tulle (also called bobbinet), or other light, sheer materials gave dancers a wide range of motion as dances became more athletic. They allowed the dancer’s beribboned feet and lower legs to be visible so audiences could appreciate the intricate footwork and athleticism of the dance. That’s part of the reason, anyway. In her book Fashion victims: The dangers of dress past and present, historian Alison Matthews David notes the high hemline of a dancer’s skirts were for more than just artistic admiration. “Awareness of the masculine gaze did induce theater managers and costumers to dress the ballerina dangerously to draw in wealthy male audience members, whose patronage was required to supplement her meager wages.”

Deadliest Fashion From History
Death of the Gale Sisters. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 28 Set 1861. Public domain.

The Ballerina’s Nightmare

These gauzy, ethereal puffs of tutu fabric were beautiful, but fatal for ballerinas who danced too close to open-flame stage lights. An 1859 Imperial Decree required tutus to use flame resistant materials to protect the dancers, but ballerinas often rejected these fabrics because they stiffened the skirt and yellowed the fabric. In 1861 six ballerinas, including the four Gale sisters, died when one dancer’s skirt caught fire and the others tried to help, igniting their own costumes. Some died of burns, others from leaping from a window to escape the flames. In 1862, an outspoken critic of the decree, prima ballerina Emma Livry, would suffer the consequences. Her tutu caught fire at a rehearsal after sitting down near a wing light and her skirt caught the flame. She ran onstage for help. The fire was extinguished, but Livry suffered burns to 40% of her body. She died eight months later.

Deadliest Fashion From History
A Splendid Spread – Satire of the wide crinoline skirts. George Cruikshank, 1850, public domain.


In the mid-1800s, fashionable ladies coveted the flounciest, widest skirts possible. The crinoline started as a stiff petticoat made of volumes of fabric, and evolving into metal hoop skirt frames to create the illusion of skirt volume without the weight of multiple layers of petticoat. Some crinoline reached six yards wide (18 meters). The skirts were so wide, it made the woman’s waist look tiny and kept unwanted suitors at arm’s length. Fashionable as they were, there were some bothersome bits. Crinoline needed a wide overskirt, meaning lots of extra fabric went into a dress, increasing its price exponentially. But worse, crinoline and the hooped underskirt used to puff them out further, could be cumbersome, even hazardous, when trying to get out carriages. By 1878, crinoline had fallen out of fashion, replaced by the Victorian era bustled skirt, narrower on the front and sides and gathered in the back.

Deadliest Fashion From History
1860 illustration of crinoline’s danger. Wellcome Images, CC 4.0.

Crinoline Burns up the Fashion World

Open flames were all around in the 1800s, in fireplaces, wall sconces, and chandeliers. “Far-away” fashions that protruded far from the wearer, such as fontage and crinoline, were particularly risky. A wrong step could start a fire, which the wearer wouldn’t notice until she was nearly engulfed in flame. On July 9, 1861 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny suffered severe burns after her dress, billowed with crinoline, caught fire. Longfellow tried to save her, suffering burns as well. She died a day later, a victim of her crinoline. Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters, Emily and Mary, suffered a similar fate. At a Halloween party in 1871, one of the girls, dancing with the host, came too close to a candle. The other sister tried to help but ignited her own dress. Desperate efforts to smother the flames were futile. Both girls suffered massive burns, and by late November, both had died.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Crinoline hoops worn under a skirt (c. 1865). Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Crushing Fashion: Crinoline’s Other Hazard

Crinoline also caused deadly industrial accidents, where a crinoline-puffed skirt would become tangled in machinery, but wouldn’t be noticed until it was too late, resulting in injury or death. One such unlucky woman is Ann Rollinson, who worked at the Firwood Bleach Works in Cork, Ireland, who became entangled in steam-powered machinery that rotated fifty times per minute. The Cork Examiner of June 2, 1964 details Rollinson’s death: “Her dress was caught upon the shaft, and she was pulled into it, and revolved with the shaft two or three minutes before the machinery could be stopped…She died at home in two hours after the occurrence.” A witness said the accident would have been avoided if her skirt hadn’t been so puffed out with crinoline.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Celluloid hair comb. Auckland War Memorial Museum, CC4.0.

Celluloid Propels Accessories into the Future

In the late 19th century, celluloid, an inexpensive precursor to modern plastics, made its way into fashion. It was cheap and replicated the look of ivory, coral, tortoiseshell, and linen fabric. Celluloid was sculpted into just about any form, from hair combs, inexpensive jewelry, and the stiffened men’s collars popular as fashion moved into the early 20th century. The material was waterproof and rinseable, so the hours of starching fabric collars into place were over. Hair ornaments and jewelry could be rinsed and easily replaced when broken. People who couldn’t afford an ivory hair comb could afford a celluloid one to ornament their hair. Celluloid had so many uses, not just in fashion but for everyday products like toothbrushes, toys, dice, and motion picture film. It was a wonder material. The only limitation to its use was the imagination. Oh, and the fact that it was highly flammable.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Tortoiseshell or celluloid lorgnette on a long handle. Rijksmuseum (2019). Public domain.

A Burning Desire to Affordable Accessorize

Despite celluloid being affordable, versatile, and easy to produce, it had the annoying side effect of burning people alive when it was exposed to elevated temperatures. Factories producing the material were constantly at risk for fire, like one that killed four and injured thirteen people working above a celluloid comb factory in New York in 1922. According to the New York Times, (4 November 1922), “The blaze ran through the celluloid like gunpowder.” A “Trojan” set his eyeglasses on fire while lighting a cigar after the flame touched the glasses cord and ran up to the celluloid frames (New York Times, 1 May 1882). Wearing a celluloid hair ornament or celluloid beads on clothing wasn’t typically a danger. It wouldn’t usually spontaneously combust. But get it too close to a flame or heat source, and it lit up like a fashion fireworks display.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Beijing women in the courtyard of their home. James Ricalton (1900). Public domain.

China’s Lotus Feet

From the 8th century to the early twentieth century, fashionable women in China had unbelievably small feet. The delicate shoes from the era are almost child-like in their appearance; small, delicate, and not meant for a great deal of movement. Natural feet were considered unladylike, ugly, and lower-class. Unbound feet meant the woman had to toil in fields and do hard labor. A small foot for a traditional Chinese woman was the equivalent of a tiny waist for a Victorian European woman. The most desirable foot was the three foot “golden lotus.” The “silver lotus” was a delicate four inches. Anything over five inches was deemed unsightly, an “iron lotus” that could damage a girl’s marriage potential.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Unbound feet showing the effects of lifelong binding. Underwood and Underwood, Women of All Nations (1911), public domain.

Fashionable Feet Left Permanent Damage

Binding started in early childhood, usually somewhere between ages two up to seven. The child’s feet were washed, and the nails clipped. Once clean, their toes, except the big toe, were broken, bent back, and tied with silk bindings. Bindings were redone every few years. The unbound feet, covered with sores and pus and smelling foul, were cleaned again and quickly re-bound. The foot bent around itself, the bone growing in an unnatural form. Women could barely walk on their permanently and deliberately deformed feet. Foot binding restricted blood circulation to the foot, sometimes sparking gangrene. Gangrene was sometimes welcome, though, since it made toes disappear. As the child grew, the shape became permanent. In 1912 the practice was outlawed, but some communities covertly continued the practice. Some women in their 80s, 90s, and 100s still hobble on their tiny, broken feet.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Hobble skirt featured in Journal des dames et des modes, 1913, Public domain.

Fashion Dictates Stride: The Hobble Skirt

Hobble skirts are an unsung result of the advent of flight. Historian Alison Matthews David speculates that the style may have been inspired by one of the first women to fly in a plane, Mrs. Edith Berg, in 1908. The Wright Brothers flight intrigued her, so she asked if she could take a ride. She became the first publicized ‘passenger’ on a flight. To keep her skirts from flapping about and catching in the mechanical systems, she tied it up with twine. Early versions of hobble skirts had similar ties around them, and a 1910 New York Times article called them “aeroplane skirts,” so David’s conclusions may be valid. The style gave women a distinctive silhouette, curvy through the middle and narrow at the bottom. The skirt was adapted into high style fashion meant to evoke the exotic ‘harem’ styles popular at the time.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Costumes Parisiens, Journal des Dames et des Modes, 1913. George Barbier, public domain.

Fashionably Hobbled to Death

Hobble skirts were notorious for restricting the ability to walk thanks to a narrow skirt opening, sometimes just 38 inches (1 meter) in diameter. This hampered mobility led to death for some unfortunate wearers. David cites two fatal incidents at the height of the hobble skirt’s fashion reign. In September 1910, a horse broke free at a racetrack and ran through the onlookers. A woman in a hobble skirt couldn’t move fast enough and was trampled to death. In 1911, a young woman a woman was crossing a bridge over the Erie Canal and stumbled over a lock, sending her careening over a railing where she drowned. Women sustained injury trying to enter or exit vehicles, or from slip-and-falls as women navigated curbs or other hazards.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Women working at United States Radium Corporation, c. 1922. Public domain.

Radium – For that (Un)natural Glow from the Inside

Radium was a wonder material. Its radioactive metal initially marketed as a health product and used in toothpaste, pillows, tonics, condoms, and cosmetics. People were drinking it in water to restore their health, youth, and vitality. Girls painted their faces with the radium-based UnDark pilfered from the factory where they painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials. The paint made their faces glow as bright as the dial numbers they painted, giving them a good laugh. In Paris, Tho-Radia debut, with radium as its healthy, youth-restoring ingredient. It would reduce fat, restore wrinkled skin, even improve circulation, and give people the healthy glow so coveted among fashionable people in the 1930s. People knew radium meant energy, and that can’t be bad, right? Doctors even knew how to harness radiation to treat cancer, so it had to be good and healthy.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Daily Mail.

A Jaw-Dropping Truth about Radium

Except it wasn’t good or healthy. In fact, after continuous use, radium was a nightmare. Fortunately, some radium products, like the face creams, had such low levels of radiation they didn’t have much impact. But people hoping to get that radium glow by drinking it, or those unfortunate factory workers who painted dials by wetting brushes to a fine point in their mouths suffered horrors. One watch painter, Mollie Maggia, consulted a dentist for jaw pain. The dentist discovered her jaw was crumbling. Other girls experienced tumors, pain, and then they started to die at an alarming rate. Eben Byers, a golf champion and steel company president from Pittsburgh. For three years, he drank three bottles of Radithor a day to retain his youthful health and vigor, until his teeth fell out and his jaw disintegrated. Doctors removed his jaw, but he succumbed to his “health elixir,” dying in 1932.

Deadliest Fashion From History
Ad for Albert C. Geyser’s Tricho hair removal system, 1925, Public domain.

X-Ray Hair Removal

Shortly after the world realized the benefits of X-ray for medical purposes, they asked what other purposes X-ray might have. Shoe stores used X-ray machines to view people’s feet in the shoes they tried on. By the 1930s, X-rays adapted to industrial use. And the fashion world discovered that X-ray was effective in removing unwanted hair. Medical researcher Leopold Freund was looking for a way to treat hypertrichosis, a condition marked by excessive hair growth. Freund found that when he aimed an X-ray at the spot, the hair came out. And none too soon – when skirts and sleeves became shorter in the late 1910s and 1920s, hair removal became popular among women, particularly in the United States. But shaving is, in short, annoying, so women sought more permanent hair removal.

Deadliest Fashion From History
X ray hair removal moved to back alleys. Robert Couse-Baker (2016, CC2.0).

X-Ray Hair Removal Moves Underground

Marketed as a permanent solution to the age-old problem of excess body hair, X-ray hair removal brought people – primarily women – to salons in droves. But it didn’t take long for the health hazards of this fashion movement to reveal themselves. The skin beneath the treated area thickened. The patients suffered atrophy, and ulcerations. Despite these side effects, x-ray hair removal was big business until the mid-1940s, when being stylishly hairless was no longer worth the risk. Officials banned X-ray hair removal, although this just moved it underground. Historian Rebecca Herzig of Bates College tells of San Francisco police staking out a house suspected of providing illegal abortions in 1940. But no, it was an underground X-ray salon! But the long-term impacts were even worse. From 1970 found x-ray hair removal likely caused a third of radiation-based cancer cases.

Deadliest Fashion From History
PP spray creates pre-distressed look on demin.

Fashion Follies

Fashion hazards continue through the ages. Today, factory workers suffer silicosis from ‘sandblasting,’ or deliberately distressing, denim sold in stores around the world. Flight attendants are experiencing skin and lung issues from the chemicals used in their uniforms. While some fashion hazards are predictable, like hobble skirts dangerously restricting movement, some dangers are unpredictable in its time, like the long-term effects of radium in an era when people drank it to restore vitality. Or, like lead-based makeup, the dangers were known, but ignored in the pursuit of high style. People will try new, daring, and outrageous things in the name of style. Manufacturers will use toxic chemicals and processes (either to the production workers or the end user) if it is cost effective and there is no specific regulation against it at the time. Fashion is a continuum of art history, and art is about extremes and experimentation.


Where Did We Find this Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

6 Deadly Fashion Trends That Killed Many People Throughout History. İrem Uğur, onedio, 12 March 2023.

Egyptian eyeliner may have warded off diseases. (n.a.) Science, 8 January 2010.

Fashion Victims: The dangers of dress past and present. Alison Matthews David, 2017, Bloomsbury Visual Arts press.

How urine, syphilis, and mercury gave rise to the phrase “Mad as a Hatter.” Rachael Funnell, 25 May 2022.

Kohl. Gina DeLuca, Fashion History Timeline, 5 June 2019.

Recipes for an Ancient Roman glow up. Jess Romeo, JSTOR Daily, 31 May 2021.

Removing roots: North American Hiroshima Maidens and the X-ray. Rebecca Herzig, Technology and Culture 40(4), October 1999.

Silicosis due to denim sandblasting in young people: MDCT findings. Selim Doganay, Hayrettin Gocmen, Ali Yikilmaz, and Abdulhakim Coskun, Eurasian Journal of Medicine, 2010 April 42(1): pp 21 – 23.

The reason people wore powdered wigs. Lucas Reilly, Mental Floss, 29 June 2012.

These chopines weren’t made for walking: Precarious platforms for aristocratic feet. Hunter Oatman-Stanford, Collectors Weekly, 17 April 2014.

X-ray hair removal: Seeing through the beauty industry. Emily Baughman, International Museum of Surgical Science, (n.d.).