Research from Ryerson fashion prof reveals how looks can kill, literally

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By Teresa Valenton

A Ryerson fashion professor published a book in 2019 about how fashion comes with health-related risks throughout history, from arsenic dyes in the 18th century to the production of distressed jeans today. 

Because of her expertise on fashion history, Alison Matthews David noticed a lack of information on the fatalities of fashion and how they impact the materials individuals wear.

This interest led her to conduct research about the physical damages of clothing and its production over time, eventually publishing a book in 2019 titled Killer Style: How Fashion Has Injured, Maimed, & Murdered Through History, co-authored with Serah-Marie McMahon.

According to Ryerson’s website, David took a 10-year-journey to various research facilities to collect evidence that would further illustrate how common health-related fashion risks have become over time.

David’s curiosity led her to investigate international museums and archives where she would look through clothing collections to find garments containing poisonous substances. She discovered exploding plastic combs, flammable pyjamas and radioactive underwear, all of which touched bodies.   

However, the materials used to create these garments have been developed over time to contain toxic substances. Clothes that were different colours were direct products of new chemical processes.

As certain materials rose in popularity, they were replicated in artificial ways that would cause damage later on. 

“People tried to imitate natural fibres like silk. They made this fibre called artificial silk, you know it as rayon. But it was explosive; it damaged workers and wearers,” David said.

Additionally, the colour green was particularly of interest in the late 18th century as individuals craved the colour of nature as cities expanded. However, green dye was unnatural and made using arsenic and copper. Workers who handled arsenic got blisters on their hands and died by inhaling poisonous dust.

David added, “It was incredibly toxic, and it was used on all sorts of consumer goods, including fashion.” 

Pigments were historically used for artificial flowers and ball gowns, causing major skin irritations and eruptions in young women who wore these products. 

Women faced the most risks as they both produced and wore the harmful clothing pieces being sold.

Mercury was also popularized as it was used for hat-making dating back to 200 years ago. “It was used in a lot of industries, including pulp and paper mills and things like that. But it never leaves the environment. Factories that existed even 200 years ago are still releasing mercury into the water,” said David. 

Fast forward to the fashion of today, the production of distressed jeans has caused respiratory infections among workers in factories that manufacture them. 

According to Denimology’s website, the new technique used to distress jeans is commonly known as sandblasting. This process involves spraying the denim with an air gun filled with fine sand. 

A report titled “Deadly Denim” stated that this process can cause death within months for workers involved in the production process. David says, “It’s not necessarily toxic, but it fills your lungs with sand.” 

Consumers are equally impacted by this process as they wear distressed jeans, “Teenagers are actually dying of sand in their lungs as well,” said David. 

Rather than actively seeking out the hazards of fashion, consumers have unknowingly worn materials that may physically harm them. David’s research continues to demonstrate health repercussions of fashion production over time.  

Regulations surrounding toxic materials in fast fashion have not advanced greatly. Non-toxic solutions have yet to be found to create environmentally friendly materials, but more options have become available in recent years. 

Many types of materials are put into certain clothing dyes such as pesticides, preservatives, cadmium or chrome tanning. According to David, “these are all toxic processes that are still with us.”

“People think about health when they think about food, but fashion also touches your skin,” she said.

As fashion brands continue to design products that match current trends, consumers are finding it difficult to stay away from giving in. 

“These things are made to be attractive, they’re hard to resist…so then it’s really hard to tell what has gone into making one product,” she said.

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