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Reposted from: FG Magazine, Sunday31 August 2014
TORONTO, Canada — Acclaimed fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld once said “Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair.” His words could not ring more true than when one browses the decadent pieces housed in the Bata Shoe Museum’s exhibition titled Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century. As one reflects on the perilous decisions made by the trendsetters of this bygone age, there are some eerie and foreboding similarities to our current consumer-fuelled thirst for fast fashion and killer looks.
Victorian age fashionistas were notorious for dancing with death through the clothes they wore. At the Bata Shoe Museum’s exhibition, visitors can explore some of the dangerous trends such as the introduction of the modern high heel, corsets that made it difficult for the wearer to breathe (and also made them more likely to catch fire) and production practices that made fashion a deathly game for factory workers.
One of the exhibition’s highlights is a ball gown dyed green using a mixture of copper and arsenic. Known as “arsenic green”, the use of this dye was still popular for years after it became widely known that the arsenic pigments could lead to physical suffering and death. The impact did not stop at the wearer who absorbed the arsenic, but affected everyone else: from the workers that produced the fabric and the seamstresses that created the exquisite gowns to the general public around the wearer.
According to the museum’s Senior Curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, the goal of the exhibition is to have “visitors consider the variety of people who came into contact with an item of fashion – be it the makers or wearers and to consider who exactly is a fashion victim.”
Deathly fashion in the twenty-first century
Do we still encounter “deadly fashion” in the 21st century? Look around you at media outlets, in stores and on the streets, and the answer is very evident. From impossibly high heels to unrealistic body expectations to the plight of workers in the fast fashion production cycle, our favourite looks can still kill. Semmelhack explains:
It is often more perilous to ignore fashion trends than to participate in them. This has historically been very true for women whose value is often assessed based on contemporary beauty ideals. For men, the cut of their suit and the shine on their shoes was also a quick way of assessing social status and success.
Just like the ideas that drove the fashion movement in the 1800s, our modern day style still seems to be driven by a similar thirst for fashion as a status symbol and unrealistic body images for both, men and women. This has resulted in worrying trends such as eating disorders and plastic surgery. Moreover, a demand for quick-to-market, cheap fashions is negatively impacting the lives of workers in already impoverished communities.
The pleasure and perils of Victorian-era fashionistas and the producers of their garments can teach us a lot about consumer culture and the role fashion plays. Just as we look at the pieces featured in the exhibition and question the motivation of the wearers, and how a society could accept the irreversible damage done to the lives of garment producers, perhaps future generations may look at ours and question the same things.
Fashion can be an artistic and beautiful thing, it can enable social change, it can allow expression, and it can also kill.
Perhaps we should take a page from history and consider the impact of our current fashion practices on the lives of the workers that produce the pieces, the wearers that embrace the fashions and our society as a whole. Fashion can be an artistic and a beautiful thing; it can enable social change and allow expression, but it can also kill. It is time to reevaluate what we wear and how we wear it, to ensure a society that can enjoy the pleasures, not the perils, of fashion.