October 22, 2015 - 12:00 am
The nineteenth century was obsessed with mirrors. Victorian fashion journals were often called ‘mirrors of fashion,’ regardless of how accurately they depicted the latest styles in dress. New technologies, including photography, large plate glass windows, and actual gilded mirrors allowed men and women to see themselves reflected in their fashionable attire in a way that had never before been possible. The most elegant wore hats, footwear, cosmetics, and hairstyles that gleamed and reflected gas and then electric light with a smooth, burnished sheen. Yet there was an underside to these gleaming, seductive new looks. As one famous caricature in the British magazine Punch reminded its readers, beautiful dress came at a cost. In ‘the Haunted Lady,’ a woman in a ballgown admires herself in a mirror, but is taken aback when she catches sight of a ghostly presence: the body of the seamstress who died of exhaustion and overwork while making her dress.
This talk examines cultural ideas around vanity and fashion, and looks at both its pleasures and its perils. Because of the industrialization and democritization of fashion in the nineteenth century, it was perceived as not simply a moral but increasingly as a medical danger for the men, women and children making and wearing it. Based on actual medical cases, including arsenic poisonings from green dress, skin burns from brightly-dyed socks, the sight of tortured feet bound up into narrow shoes, and a new understanding of contagious diseases like typhus and smallpox transmitted by clothing, doctors reminded the public that dress was not merely a danger for the immortal soul, but for the all-too-mortal body as well. Using a range of images, museum objects, and drawing on new scientific evidence, this talk will hopefully provoke interesting debate and discussion around the ways in which fashion has been and still is a mirror of our society.
Post Presentation Links:
|How the fashion industry has injured women: From killer heels to ‘long scarf syndrome’|