Shaping the Body: Food, Fashion & Life exhibition, York Castle Museum
PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 May 2016
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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.
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.’
Shaping the Body exhibition
Kim Kardashian? Never heard of her. This is how you break the internet – in a 1880s bustle gown
Super-skinny tan leather boots with pointed toes and a high Louis heel from 1910-1920
Why not pop along to York Castle Museum and play dress-up at its new Shaping the Body exhibition
Curator Faye Prior admires a waspie corset, which was essential ‘active wear’ in 1890-1900 for horse riding or cycling
Beautiful but deadly – York Castle Museum’s arsenic Victorian dress from around 1870
An x-ray of a pixelated punk watches over York Castle Museum’s latest exhibition
You could sneak a small child into the cinema under this half-hoop bustle from 1884-88 (not that we would ever do such a thing)
A corset of brown cotton twill lined with white linen from 1880-1890 – comfortable for everything except breathing and moving
Yes, it looks like an Anglo-Saxon battle helmet but it’s actually a hinged iron corset from 1580-1599
Vogue-less 18th century rich ladies learned about the latest styles with the help of a fashion doll (yes, it’s clothes were removable; and, yes, it is ye olde creepy Barbie)
A moustache cup from 1895-1901 – because you never know when your tache wax might start to drip
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