Corsets, Muslin Disease, and More of the Deadly Fashion Trends
Some fashion trends are to die for, while others well, they just might actually kill you. From the Muslin Disease, popular in France in the late 18th century, to the more current ‘Fashion Braces’ fad sweeping Thailand, Indonesia, and China, here’s a look at seven of the deadliest style crazes throughout history.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was all the rage for women to dampen themselves in water before dressing in their muslin gowns. The wet, thin fabric would then stick to their backsides, showing off their figures and emphasizing that they were dressed sans undergarments. In revolutionary France, the Sumptuary Laws stated that one’s clothing and accessories could not weigh more than 3.5KG, as rich fabrics and heavily embroidered clothing were reserved strictly for the upper class. So, lower class women would forego underwear. The cold temperatures, however, proved to be too strong for the women wearing wet, weak fabric, leading to severe cases of pneumonia. Some hygienists at the time claimed the practice was responsible for the influenza that broke out in Paris in 1803, resulting in the outbreak being referred to as the ‘muslin disease.’
For over a thousand years, the Chinese tradition of foot-binding plagued the country’s young women. The practice, which emerged during the eighth century, was meant to symbolize wealth and class. Women would first bathe their feet in a mixture of vinegar and natural vegetation. Then, their toenails would be cut off and their toes would be bent tightly underneath each foot until the bones broke. The feet were then firmly bandaged, allowing the binding to solidify. Wealthy women would have their feet rewrapped at least once a day to ensure they were being molded into the appropriate shape. By deforming the feet, women became desirable “household items,” as they were barely able to walk, not to mention to do any sort of labor. Some men also considered the small steps women were forced to take after this ritual to be more feminine. As a result of the painful procedure, women would lose circulation in their toes, resulting in gangrene, blood poisoning, and worse—toes that would rot and fall off. Of the nearly ten million women who underwent the practice, around 10 percent died from relating complications.
Nicknamed the “father killer,” the detachable high-collar was a popular men’s accessory in the 19th century that was attached to the shirt by studs. Seemingly harmless, the collar was so stiff and tight that it actually could cut off a man’s circulation, causing asphyxia or an abscess of the brain. In an obituary for John Cruetzi in 1888, The New York Times wrote, “His head dropped over on his chest and then his stiff collar stopped the windpipe and checked the flow of blood through the already contracted veins, causing the death to ensue from asphyxia and apoplexy.” In 1912, a man named William F. Dillon died from a similar situation. “Mr. Dillon apparently suffered from an attack of indigestion which caused a slight swelling of his neck and the collar choked him to death,” the paper said.
The chopine was, in ways, a primitive form of the high heel, popular among European women from their creation in the 1400’s until the mid-1600’s. These high-platform shoes were meant to help women steer clear of mud or dirty roads, as well as provide the illusion of elongated legs. Overtime, chopines were designed increasingly higher, with some hitting up to 30-inches in height. The platform shoes, however, severely threatened a woman’s mobility, and, as the heights grew, so did their danger. Women were mostly unable to walk without a cane or escort, and they often lost their balance, resulting in injury, and sometimes death.
Notoriously one of the most dangerous fashion fads of all time, the corset restricted women’s breathing, led to broken ribs, and could result in internal bleeding as organs were pushed in unnatural directions. When tight-lacing corsets became a phenomenon in the 1890s, things became increasingly dangerous—the bust-less Edwardian corset, in particular, deeply injured a woman’s hips and spine. The upper-class women who favored this fashion developed bodies that became distorted, particularly in their breasts, shoulders, and necks, as their waists sizes shrunk. The corset also served as an appetite suppressant, so in addition to dying from pneumothorax, atelectasis, or chronic gastroesophogeal reflux, it was also possible to faint, resulting in a bad fall.
Comprised of stiff material including horsehair and steel, the crinoline was a piece of hardware layered underneath women’s hoop skirts and dresses. Aside from discomfort, the steel, cage-like apparatus made even the most mundane tasks, like sitting down for dinner or walking through a doorway, nearly impossible. The dangers of the crinoline, however, were never-ending. The accessory was easily lifted by a gust of wind and would regularly get entangled in the wheel spokes of carriages. The most dangerous facet, however, was its flammability. In 1861, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife, Fanny, caught fire and died while wearing her crinoline. “While seated at her library table, making seals for the entertainment of her two children, a match or piece of lighted paper caught her dress, and in a moment she was enveloped in flames,” a Victorian newspaper wrote. “Her husband ran to her assistance, and succeeded in extinguishing the flames, with considerable injury to himself… the following morning Mrs. Longfellow rallied a little, but at eleven o’clock she was forever released from suffering.”
More recently, the fad of fashion braces—mouthwear utilized for stylistic, rather than medicinal purposes—took the teens of Thailand, Indonesia, and China by storm as they are “considered a sign of wealth, status, and style.” Although the mouth accessory may not seem all that bad, it has been linked to two deaths—one of a 17-year old from Khon Kaen who died from a thyroid infection, and another of a 14-year-old girl who passed away from unreported complications related to fashion braces she purchased at an open-air market. The Thai government pushed to have fashion braces banned, as many of the pieces confiscated by authorities were also discovered to contain amounts of lead. The government has since prohibited the production, sale, and import of these products. Aside from purchasing braces on the black market, D.I.Y. kits were (and still are) also available for home installation. “Some people put the fashion (braces) on by themselves, which is dangerous because they could come loose and slip into the throat," the secretary-general of the Consumer Protection Board in Thailand said in 2009.