A scary story of vintage clothing and its hidden horrors

I am sorry for some reason all the images from this post have disapeared I will try to find the orginal files but in the meantime I have left it up incase the text  and links are useful

I thought it would be interesting to examine the hidden issues connected to buying vintage items ,while furs tend to attract the most negative attention there are other issues less obvious in buying many vintage items.

victorian 1860s gown

The most worrying  are those connected to health hazards and especially substances such as arsenic and mercury used in vintage items production,though not common there were cases of poisoning connected to Victorian gowns even during the 19thc ,several dye works were closed because unsafe amounts of arsenic were found in clothing .Pre  1890s  green clothing may well have had arsenic used in the creation of the dye .

1880s green dress

(painting seen here http://fannycornforth.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/passion-for-paxton.html)

Tales of clothing used to poison ladies was not limited to myths of the Medici court

http://www.dressaday.com/2010/01/dont-wear-green-tarletan-dresses.html(masachutists board of health 1883)

Attention has very frequently been called to the presence of large amounts of arsenic in green tarlatan, which has given rise so many times to dangerous symptoms of poisoning when made into dresses and worn, so that it is very rare now to see a green tarlatan dress. This fabric is still used, however, to a very dangerous extent, chiefly for the purposes of ornamentation, and may often be seen embellishing the walls and tables at church and society fairs, and in confectionery, toy and dry-goods stores. The writer has repeatedly seen this poisonous fabric used at church fairs and picnics as a covering for confectionery and food, to protect the latter from flies. As is well known, the arsenical pigment is so loosely applied to the cloth that a portion of it easily separates upon the slightest motion. Prof. Hoffmann after examining 11 large number of specimens estimated that twenty or thirty grains of the pigment would separate from a dress per hour, when worn in a ball-room….


But green tarlatan is not the only fabric which contains arsenic. We find arsenic sometimes in other substances used in making articles of wearing apparel, usually in the form of arsenical pigments. The writer detected a large amount of arsenic in a specimen of cloth known as “Foulard cambric,” which had been made into a dress; after wearing the dress a short time severe conjunctivitis was produced, together with nasal catarrh, pharyngitis, and symptoms of gastric irritation. The pattern of the dress consisted of alternate stripes of light-blue and navy-blue, and contained 0.291 grm. per square meter. Conjunctivitis has also been recorded from wearing of “tulle” dresses. A pustular eruption upon the neck and arms was caused by “a splendid dark-green dress, trimmed with light-green leaves,” obtained “from a well-known Parisian atelier;” the dress was found to contain “a large percentage of arsenic.”

Excessive irritation of the skin has frequently been caused by wearing stockings colored with an arsenical pigment. The writer has detected arsenic most frequently in light-red, magenta-colored and brown stockings;…..

There is what appears to be an excellent study of the subject here


While it seems unlikely to me that any vintage gown would be worn frequently enough for any modern poisoning to be severe ,the use of chemicals in the dye process should be an issue anyone wearing Victorian items is aware of .While most of us are unlikely to wear Victorian gowns ,I have worn Victorian stockings on one occasion when absolute accuracy was required and use Victorian lace and despite concerns about damage I always throughly soak and then wash under running water vintage items ,,Stockings ,gloves ,bonnets shawls may all have traces of arsenic .

report from Victorian newspaper

‘The evil effects of socks are well-known,’ said one newspaper, reporting that an MP was among many who had found themselves disabled after wearing arsenical stockings.

It’s should not be assumed this was a health scare that like many modern ones is based on hype and odd incidents of susceptible individuals,the amounts of arsenic found were extremely high and well recorded

1848 lancet,,,,

Examining the ball gown worn by one London society hostess, a doctor found 60 grains of Scheele’s Green per square yard – enough to kill 12 people. More alarmingly still, it was so loosely bound into the fabric that even the gentlest waltz could send it billowing out in a cloud of poisonous dust.

While not many people may buy or wear vintage Victorian clothing Lovers of vintage Victorian or pre Victorian  decorative items should also be aware it was used in curtains table runners ,paint on toys and other domestic items ,stuffed animals and wallpapers.Its considered a possibility that Napoleon was poisoned not by his captors but by the green wallpaper in his rooms .The ubiquity of arsenic in victorian wall coverings should not be underestimated and care taken when removing old paper from walls,,

extract ,,,

a revealing letter of 1885 from Morris to his dyer Thomas Wardle suggested that he might have used arsenic greens in his famous and desirable designs. The letter piqued my interest, and early samples of Morris &Co. wallpapers were tracked down to the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, in the UK, once the childhood home of Morris. The Gallery had a scrap,10 cm by 10 cm, of Trellis, Morris’ first wallpaper design, and the third to be printed. It came from the home of Morris’ general foreman George Campfield, and for this reason was thought to be of early origin. The scrap I received was a red rose on a green branch. The Museum allowed me to remove tiny flakes of pigments from Trellis for microanalysis. The results were immediate and impressive. The green branch was an arsenic-copper salt, the red rose vermilion. A highly toxic piece of art! This research was published in Nature..


modern cases


scarlett O haras green  curtain dress was probably a major health hazard!

scarlett o hara ,velvet curtian dress

Moving on from the well documented use of arsenic ,there is the issue of Mercury


What makes this dangerous is mercury’s extreme neurotoxicity. That is, its devastating effects on the brain and nervous system. The “mad hatters” of Victorian times suffered from mercury poisoning when they rubbed the metal into felt cloth to preserve it. Mental confusion, trembling and eventually death can result from inhaling the vapors of this liquid metal, Anyone buying a Victorian or earlier  hat should be aware of the human cost which was involved in its creation and be aware that its possible enough mercury remain it the fibres to make wearing it hazardous and it is wise to be aware that mercury was used in the process of gilding mirrors ,furniture and jewelry. I have come out in unpleasant welts when I wore a moleskin cape and was told it may well have been a reaction to  vestiges  of mercury used to cure the moleskin.

there are other less well known problems such as lead ,this is likely to be present in old paint /varnish on vintage furniture or woodwork ,while hair ornaments may contain it  in quantities unlikely to harm adults it would be wise to keep vintage hair ornaments ,jewelry ,vanity sets etc away from toddlers who might be tempted to put them in their mouths..

It is also unwise to use Victorian cages for keeping pet birds  .

Its is easy to identify old lead painted items as the paint forms a distinctive “alligator ” effect  often mimicked (minus the lead) in distressed furniture .


There is also  the ethical issue of the hidden  human cost associated with the creation of vintage clothing ,the factory conditions which may mean that a child was maimed or killed producing the very cloth your  victorian gown is made from  or the curtains your hanging,Most certainly any hat wil have been produced at the expense of the hat makers health and of course Victorian and Edwardian hats frequently contain preserved birds ,,or beetles a trend that contributed to the destruction of many species of colourful birds and beetles and the destruction of eco systems .I personally do not have problems with vintage clothing on moral grounds for the same reason I dont have issues with vintage furs any harm was done in the past and not to use items  already created is wasteful though buying and funding any modern industrys run on Victorian lines is obviously morally untenable.

It should be remembered that there are however restrictions on the buying and selling of certain items

image source http://barbaraanneshaircombblog.com/2009/10/11/some-lovely-things-on-ebay-15/

The sale of   ivory is of course strictly controlled,its possible to sell vintage ivory items such as combs or fans but its essential to be able to prove the item was made prior to the ban and purchased legally .

Finaly when considering wearing period costume it is wise to consider the health risks ,if you will be wearing corsets regularly for  long term work as a re enactor etc I would suggest it is unwise to buy steel boned ones and that more flexible plastic boned ones would be more sensible as these are less restrictive but will still give the basic shape needed, all be it without the perfectly accurate rigidity.It is also wise to buy the best quality hoops possible at least cotton and if possible have thicker fabric ones made ,I know  that the USA has  reports of experiments to establish the safety of hoops and news reports of cases  where a hoop  petticoat  caught fire causing serious burns.I have perosnaly heard of one case in the past few months of a re enactors being bruned from a hoop that caught light.

I hope this post will not have deterred buyers and re enactors  but proved interesting and useful.

Extended treatment of victorian experiments and cases can be found here


This post is based on resreach done for my talk

Arsenic and Old Lace ,or fashion to die for ,the story of victorian costume


About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
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11 Responses to A scary story of vintage clothing and its hidden horrors

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  2. Very interesting, excellent article. I went Googling “green tarlatan” after reading a book by Miranda James called “Arsenic and Old Books” and stumbled upon your site. You mention hoops catching fire. I teach -and reenact – Colonial American history (1700s or so) and we have found that “real” fabrics such as cotton, linen or wool will smolder for quite a while before they blaze. Fabrics with even the slightest amount of acrylic or polyester *will* catch fire very quickly, as synthetics are a petroleum product.

    • Hi
      Thank you ,,re the fabrics,yes I always tried to wear wool if I could for any event where there was likely to be fire around,,I used to burn my cut off scraps of fabric on our open fire if I was sewing in the room when it was lit as you say anything synthetic usually went up quite quickly ,,though I found the heavier synthetic taffeta sometimes just smouldered unless it was in the centre of the fire ,,but though normal weight cotton was fine,I did find lightweight cotton would burn quite fast too.

    • I just finished that book myself and I must say the twist at the end was unexpected to say the least. As a side note I love Deisel.

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  5. Very interesting, I was aware of the lead-products, but not of the others. Also, I just finished a book where it mentioned green tarlatan cloth in conjunction with accidental death. I myself am rather find of vintage especially Victorian styles, but I usually make do by using modern clothes and combine them in such a way that it looks old-fashioned.
    Best regards

    • Hi thanks for the comments, glad you found it interesting ,,but yes theres a lot of things I didnt know about until I started to buy a lot of vintage items both to wear myself and pass around for other people to try on ,I started doing research to make sure things were safe or if they were not safe,,like Arsenic green ribbon that they were on things I didnt have any direct contact with .I love vintage and especially antique clothing but I am a lot more careful now,,and theres a lot of recent vintage stuff that looks antique because if its 60s or 70s its had long enough to fade and age unless theres a label I cant always tell an old Victorian style nightdress from a late Victorian genuine one because ,,earlier than late victorian is easy because they are hand sewn

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