Thursday, 25 October 2018

Your clothes are out to get you: a Halloween horror story

Hello, dear reader. I hope you are wearing your most comforting clothes, because I bring chilling tales from the realm of fashion, both past and present. Our clothes are meant to make us feel good, but sometimes they can do quite the opposite. Don’t seek refuge in your wardrobe if you feel scared, because your clothes are out to get you...

Highgate Cemetery is known for its unique and unusual monuments to the dearly departed, but one headstone stuck in my memory not because of its grandiosity or because it was the last resting place of someone noteworthy, but because it was the only one to record the cause of death.

Emma Wallace Grad
second daughter of
George Hebden Grad
Born the 20th August 1827
Died the 20th October 1845
In the 19th year of her age
From the effects of fire
Her dress having accidentally ignited
ten days previously

What a horrible way to go. The year of her death gives some indication as to how this could have happened; in the mid 1840s fashion dictated very full skirts supported by several petticoats, which could all too easily have swept too close to an open fire. The less sympathetic among us might scoff at how vanity led this unfortunate young woman to become a literal fashion victim, but the truth is that our clothes have been a source of deadly danger for centuries, and still are. 

One doesn’t have to stray far into the realms of fantasy fiction to come across a piece of jewellery with mischief on its mind. The timeless appeal of precious metals makes them the perfect way to beguile a hapless protagonist, whereas clothes feel more ephemeral; would Gollum or Bilbo have been inexorably drawn to an old sweater? Of course the reality is that the gold and silver we favour for jewellery is inert, unchanging, whereas clothes change with us. They adapt and react to our bodies, sometimes in ways that can actively cause us harm.

In an episode of CSI: New York, a young bride drops dead at the alter. The murder weapon? Her wedding dress, illicitly procured from an undertaker and sold as secondhand. The formaldehyde used to preserve the body had seeped into the dress, and poisoned its new wearer. It seems an unlikely scenario now, but if we travel back in time to the 1850s, poor Emma Wallace Grad could easily have been the victim of a different kind of fashion fatality. New chemical dyes were all the rage, but bright green (also popular as a shade for wallpaper) was made from arsenic, which reacted with the warmth and moisture of the wearer’s body to become an active poison. Is it a coincidence that Victorian women were stereotyped as weak and sickly when they were surrounded by toxic substances? 

Examples of clothes that actively wish their wearer ill are surprisingly few and far between in fiction; probably the best-known example are the scarlet pointe shoes that are the undeniable star of “The Red Shoes”, the ballet where the shoes force the unlucky wearer to dance herself to death. But our clothes don’t need to be enchanted with evil spells to cause us harm, or even death. Dancer Isadora Duncan had her life cut short by the long tasseled scarf that was her style trademark: it caught in the wheel of her car as she drove away and... well, perhaps you can imagine. 

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt personally victimised by a benign-looking item of clothing. Anyone who has hobbled home after wearing a poor choice of footwear for an event, or experienced the singular sensation of being stabbed in the rib cage or armpit by an escaping underwire might recognise the feeling. After wrestling the offending item of clothing from your body, you stare at it in annoyance and disappointment. “How could you?” you think. “I liked you!”

You might think yourself immune to any fashion-based health hazards. If you wear comfortably fitting clothes, avoid dangling accessories, and ensure your clothes are well looked after, you might think yourself immune. I hate to break it to you, but your vigilance is in vain. Every time you (or anyone else) washes clothing containing polyester or other synthetic fibres, tiny plastic microfibres find their way into our water supply. Friends of the Earth estimate that 83% of our water is contaminated with microplastics. Unwittingly eating old bits of someone else’s clothes isn’t something we’d dream of doing under normal circumstances, yet here we are. 

So maybe the reason we don’t tell horror stories about our clothes is that it’s a little too close to the bone. We all have to wear clothes, after all, so to think of all the harm these innocent-looking and inviting garments could inadvertently do is very disconcerting.

Perhaps we need to turn a suspicious eye towards the true villains of the piece: the people at the top of an industry that has turned a blind eye to deaths of workers in its factories for centuries, and given no thought to  the devastation that its poisonous chemicals and harmful materials can cause. Do I believe they are doing it deliberately? No, but I do believe they don’t care, which is somehow scarier, especially when we’d like to think of our clothes as friends, not foes.

So beware the siren song of fast fashion, my friends. If that beguiling bargain looks too good to be true, maybe it is. After all, cheap clothes aren’t really cheap. Someone, somewhere is paying the cost.