Shaping the Body: Food, Fashion & Life exhibition, York Castle Museum
- Credit: Archant
From arsenic dresses to whale-bone corsets, a new exhibition shows how fashion has shaped our lives
When a curator excitedly drops drawers into the conversation, you know you’re not in for just any old exhibition.
‘It wasn’t until the Regency period that people wore undergarments at all,’ she says, while we stare at an enormous pair of calf-length pants with a frankly alarming billowing gap from front to back. ‘Everyone wore so many layers, it just wasn’t necessary. ‘These were really the first women’s drawers. They don’t look like anything we have today, but that opening between the legs is actually quite ingenious. It meant that when they needed to go to the loo, they could do so while remaining fully dressed.’
These ingenious drawers are just one of the big draws of York Castle Museum’s latest exhibition – Shaping the Body: Food, Fashion & Life.
Our guide for the day is social history curator Faye Prior, whose infectious enthusiasm for the subject makes even the tightest of whale-bon corsets sound like an attractive option, but even without her by your side (sadly, she’s not included in the admission price) this is a fun, informative and hugely entertaining new offering from York’s biggest museum, with each and every object telling a story as vivid and colourful as an arsenic dress (more of that later).
In contemporary language, ‘killer fashion’ refers to cutting-edge designs to die for, but the museum’s expertly curated new exhibition explores different periods in history during which following the latest trends could literally kill you.
Fashion history is littered with designs and styles that could have lethal consequences when worn, and ingredients we now know to be toxic were regularly used during the dying of fabrics or in cosmetics applied directly to the skin.
- 1 20 of the best places to eat out in St Ives
- 2 Win the full range of Bashall Spirits Gins
- 3 Seven Falls, Tintwistle - a hidden gem in the Peak District
- 4 6 waterfall walks in Derbyshire and the Peak District
- 5 12 beautiful waterfalls in Yorkshire
- 6 Win a G&H Spirits gin set with Sussex Life
- 7 Win a three nights stay at Nydsley Hall in Pateley Bridge
- 8 10 great circular walks in Lancashire
- 9 20 of the best restaurants in Hertfordshire
- 10 Win Castle Howard Prom Tickets & a VIP Hamper
They usually involved relatively low concentrations during each wear or application, so it was not until much later that the cumulative effect led to its devastating conclusion. But for the people involved in making the clothes in the first place, chronic illness, madness and death were often just lurking darkly around the corner.
‘The rich, who were the only ones who could afford these clothes, wore so many layers that the poisoned fabric barely touched their skin,’ says Faye. ‘It was the poor, the people handling these fabrics and dyes every day, who suffered the most. They would become sick, recover at home and then have to return to work again – there was no choice and the terrible, often fatal, consequences were sadly inescapable.’
One example of this fatal fashion now on display at the museum is a Victorian green gown, which owes its lovely, vibrant hue to arsenic.
‘There are still traces of it in the dress now, so we have to wear gloves when handling it,’ says Faye, as we gingerly take a step back from the display, just in case.
The arsenic lies dormant on dry fabric, but if it becomes damp – if, for example, the wearer starts to perspire – then the poison can be absorbed into the blood stream, replacing phosphorus in the bone and causing rashes, ulceration, dizziness, confusion and weakness of the hands and feet.
Mercury is another nasty that crops up in the exhibition as it was once commonly used in the production of felt for hats.
Workers who inhaled its vapours often suffered physical and neurological ailments including formication (the sensation of small insects crawling under the skin), insomnia, profuse sweating and increased salivation. Hence the term ‘mad as a hatter’.
Among the other non-fatal but nonetheless fascinating fashions on display is a collection of rare and unusual corsets that paved the way for 21st century body modifiers. One particular eye-watering model cinches the waist to a teeny-tiny 19 inches.
‘That’s a little extreme,’ says Faye, as we’re confronted with a corset of child-like proportions. ‘But some of the corsets, particular the wasp waist styles favoured by younger women, were actually very comfortable and could be worn while playing tennis, cycling or riding a horse.
‘Actually, my favourite piece in the whole exhibition is the iron corset. It looks very strange to modern eyes, but I think it’s quite beautiful.’
Which it is, after a fashion. w
Shaping the Body is at York Castle Museum every day from 9.30am to 5pm. Admission is £10 (children under 16 free with a paying adult). For details visit yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk