For Halloween, Fashion Stories to Scare You Silly


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The case of a woman who was strangled by her long scarf was linked to a ’70s trend spurred by Tom Baker’s version of the Doctor in the BBC TV show “Doctor Who.”

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Michael Putland/Getty Images

The streets this weekend will be filled with people wearing items of clothing intended to terrify, repulse and otherwise freak out viewers. But as “Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present,” a new book from Alison Matthews David, an associate professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, makes clear, zombie costumes are the least of it.

Since at least the 19th century, women and men have been wearing garments that were truly horrifying in the damage they caused — both to the wearer and to the world around them.

As far as wardrobe scares go, it doesn’t get much more dramatic. Naomi Campbell falling off her giant Vivienne Westwood platforms (a story that is included in Ms. David’s book) has nothing, for example, on the tale of the arsenic-laced green dyes in clothes and accessories of the late 19th century, whose poison leached into the wearer’s skin. Or of the crinoline skirts that caught fire and burned the women inside to death, or the hobble skirts that caused their wearers to go tumbling to the pavement. Or of the woman who was strangled by her scarf on a ski lift in the 1970s, thanks to “long scarf syndrome,” the Dr. Who-spurred neckwear trend, or the girls in 2005 who, in an effort to copy the actress Sienna Miller, started sporting long boho gypsy skirts whose hems brushed dangerously close to candles on the floor around them.

Though this is all, on one level, clearly alarmist, and it would be wrong to draw a general conclusion from the evidence presented that fashion does more harm than good, it’s nevertheless eye-opening.

Which was, it turns out, Ms. David’s goal. Speaking on the phone from Canada, she said her point was not to indict the industry, though she acknowledged the book could be read that way, but rather to cause “people to take a second look at what they buy, and think about the other people it may have touched.”

“I wouldn’t be in fashion if I didn’t believe it could empower us and protect us and be a power for good,” she said. “But I do think the way it is produced and marketed can cause harm.”

And not just to women. She also, she said, wanted people to understand that “it’s not as simple as ‘why are women such fashion victims?’ Men have been equally gullible, wearing top hats that caused mercury poisoning in the craftsmen,” not to mention brightly colored socks (in the late 19th century) created from aniline dyes that caused the wearer to have sores and skin diseases.

So did the experience of researching the book, which took about a decade and included not only delving into fashion archives but also into old medical texts and digging garments out of storage and having them (and, for that matter, modern cosmetics) analyzed and tested in various modern laboratories, change how its author thinks about what she buys?

“I probably shy away from fast fashion more than I would have,” Ms. David said. “I try to buy clothes made locally, by Canadian designers, out of recycled fibers. But I still buy lipstick, though I might get it tested in our physics lab for lead content before I actually use it.”

In the meantime, she is at work on a new book, a study of “clothing and crime — how clothes have been used in smuggling, as disguise and as murder weapons.”

Murder weapons? Trick or treat.

“Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present,” by Alison Matthews David, Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 256 pages, $40.



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