In the 19th century, the beautiful outfits fashioned by seamstresses and shoemakers supplied the privileged with enviable ensembles. Swathed from head to toe in expensive garments and shod in delicate footwear, fashion-forward women graced the boulevards and the ballrooms with their colourful presence—a pleasure to behold for painters, poets, and passersby who saw them. Their tailored male companions cut equally refined figures in their black coats, spotless white linens, lustrous top hats and shiny boots. Yet, presenting an elegant exterior was not without its perils for both the makers and wearers of fashion.
Curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator, Bata Shoe Museum and Dr. Alison Matthews David, Associate Professor, School of Fashion, Ryerson University and building on Dr. Matthews David’s research into the dangers of dress in the 19th century, this exhibition explores a wide variety of pleasures and perils associated with fashion from head to toe. In addition to highlighting exquisite examples of footwear and clothing from the 19th century, the exhibition also explores many of the often untold stories related to fashion and its production. Included in the exhibition are the dangers of dresses and shoes dyed arsenic green, the plight of mad hatters and mercury poisoning as well as the effects of constricting corsets and impossibly narrow footwear. The exhibition also looks at shifts in the making of fashion from independent craft to fragmented labour completed in garrets or on factory floors. The move from traditional shoemaking to factory-made footwear is also emphasized as is the role of those workers who were integral to the presentation of the fashionable figure from the seamstress to the shoeshine boy.
The exhibition featured over ninety artifacts from the Bata Shoe Museum’s extensive holdings augmented by loans from private collections. Highlights from the exhibition included dresses that span the century, mauve-hued footwear dyed with the first coal tar colours invented in 1856, a shoemaking automaton monkey by famed French automaton maker, Jean-Marie Phalibois, beautiful hand-embroidered boots manufactured by the exclusive Parisian shoemaking firm of Francois Pinet, impossibly narrow Adelaide boots and gloves worn by Empress Elisabeth of Austria and a corset with a sixteen-inch waist from the Cleaver/Suddon collection.
Fashion Victims: The Pleasures & Perils of Dress in the 19th Century was on view until June 2016.
The Bata Shoe Museum gratefully acknowledges funding provided by the Government of Ontario.
Press materials for this exhibition can be found here: