The wide, flouncing skirts of the 1800s might look romantic and hearken back to a more innocent time, but in reality, hoop skirts and crinoline petticoats were death traps. Made of highly flammable materials and nearly impossible to easily get out of, Victorian gowns were once responsible for thousands of deaths per year. Some victims were ballerinas whose costumes went up in a blaze, while others felt their hoop skirts turn into flaming cones of horror – and if they survived the fire, then the toxic arsenic dyes would probably kill them anyway.
If you've ever wondered what it feels like to burn to death, be assured it is anything but pleasant. These women found out firsthand, and were often so fastened into their dresses that there was no way to escape being burned alive. Of course, this wasn't the only potentially deadly fashion trend of the 1800s, but it was one of the more horrifying.
Although death by flaming dress might seem like only an occasional hazard, Victorian garments catching on fire actually killed thousands of women a year. Through the early-to-mid 1800s, women continued to wear incredibly flammable clothing despite widespread reports of death and injury; apparently they just considered it the price of fashion.
Even when the British medical journal The Lancet decided to publish their findings regarding the surge in deaths, it did little at the time to deter prevailing trends. The Lancet estimated in 1860 that at least 3,000 woman were killed in a single year by fire.
Victorian dresses were practically designed ot be flammable; most dresses of the day were made of cotton or other open-weave fabrics, especially in the United States, where cotton was a major cornerstone of the economy. Some of the petticoats were even made of horse hair. What's more, the style of the day was all about lace, which burned easily due to its lattice-like structure.
With so many flammable materials combined, attempting to put out a dress fire wasn't a simple or easy process. The dress would become a ball of fire within moments and, because those dresses were held on with dozens of buttons or laces, there was no way for a woman to get out of them in time.
Even for those who didn't wear the enormous crinoline hoop skirts that were popular in the Victorian era, death by flaming dress was still a very real possibility. Ballerinas in particular were in constant danger of being burned alive. For one thing, their dresses were made of terribly flammable material, such as bobbinet, cotton muslin, gauze, and tarlatan. All of these made the ballerinas seem light, ethereal, and delicate when they moved, and made their skirts stand out in the traditional style. However, these fabrics were also prone to light up in a heartbeat when exposed to the open flames often used in stage lighting, and they did so with shocking regularity.
In 1862, a popular ballerina named Emma Livry was running through a dress rehearsal for an opera when tragedy struck. Her skirt got too close to a gaslight, and her costume was lit ablaze. She was consumed by flames before someone was at last able to put her out. Livry was given immediate medical care, and managed to survive for eight months, but ultimately died of blood poisoning related to her burns.
Livry was hardly the only dancer to succumb to such a fate; in 1844, a dancer named Clara Webster met the same end. In 1861, six dancers died when they tried to help a fellow ballerina who caught fire backstage. It was not unheard of for entire ballet troupes or theaters to go up in flame.
The danger of a Victorian dress was compounded by the fact that it was often dyed with dangerous chemicals, most especially arsenic. Green was a particularly fashionable color in the Victorian era, and a good way to get that shade was with arsenic dye. Hats, gloves, and yes, even dresses, were colored green with the chemical; without even catching on fire, some women died horrible deaths as a result.
In 1861, a 19-year-old artificial flower maker named Matilda Scheurer was felled by the simple act of working with the dye. She convulsed and vomited, then foamed at the mouth in a harsh shade of green. It was later discovered that there was arsenic in her liver, lungs, and stomach. The level was so high that even the whites of her eyes were tinged green.
While arsenic-laced dresses were dangerous enough, the flammability factor only made things worse. Burning an arsenic dress could release toxic fumes into the air which, of course, the woman wearing the dress would inhale. Even if she wasn't killed immediately by the flames, just breathing the smoke could cause serious health problems and lead to her early demise.