February 25

72 comments

Deadly Traps of the Victorian Era

Well, ladies and gents!

Women have always been doomed to withhold a certain position in society: slaves to fashion, cosseted and striving to please men, whatever the cost. Just like today’s women attempting plastic surgery or wearing really high heels to look good, Victorian women also took extravagant efforts for the sake of fashion.

But sometimes, when it came to looking pretty, some ladies would really go the extra mile! And Machiavelli’s famous saying, The end justifies the means, could go a little bit too far… or close to death!

Although technologically advanced, the British society of the Victorian era was characterized by great rigor in the morals first expressed by Queen Victoria herself, a model for every respectable woman of the time.

The model dictated the lady of the house to be a loving mother, a fashionable lady, and always well-mannered. Creating and maintaining this image, however, entailed many risks for women.

Well, keep reading, hun! 🙂

Victorian Silhouette

Even though the official timeline of Regency Era is from 1811 to 1820, the regency style in fashion really began around 1795.

The typical Victorian silhouette demanded a very slim waist, which was possible only with the use of a
corset. Thanks to the industrialization and production of garments, corsets were accessible to all walks of life.

The corset pressed the sides and the chest which in turn, pushed the internal organs. The immediate problem, of course, was that movement was limited and breathing was difficult.

Many girls started wearing corsets at a very early age, even as infants, when their bodies had not yet been formed, resulting in a completely deformed skeleton. Corsets on children were often used as training tools to prepare them for the corsets they would wear in adult life. A child’s corset was less intense and usually given its shape by the rough material sewn in cords rather than the baleen or steel rods they would wear as grown-ups. When they were confirmed at the age of 15, and thus able to get married, they got their first real corset. This was a shoulder corset or a girl's pair of stays.

And if you think that pregnant women could escape the stylistic norm, well… think again! Women wore corsets throughout pregnancy, often causing miscarriages or giving birth to malformed babies and, of course, developing uterine prolapse.

This situation was doubly tragic for women of the time, as their value was calculated on how many children they would give birth to and how many of them would be able to spend their childhood healthy (and there were many more traps in the Victorian home to prevent this…).

Hourglass Silhouette

The corset guaranteed the delicate waist and toned bodice, but for the effect of the hourglass silhouette to be complete, the pelvis and the entire skirt should be highlighted as well.

To do this, women put a crinoline through their dress, a wooden or metal construction that created the characteristic umbrella shape.

But women were taking this trend too seriously. In their effort to get more and more diameter in their dresses, which made navigating the space difficult and dangerous, they usually put themselves in danger.

There were several incidents where women were pushed, dropped or dragged by carriage wheels because of the crinoline. But the biggest problem was the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of women over the decades who were burned alive because their skirts caught fire.

Additionally, the dresses and the coats were so long that they literally dusted the streets of Victorian megacities, bringing home dirt and disease.

Footwear

The bad balance given by crinoline would finish with the right shoes of course!

The industrial-produced shoes of the time did not have right and left. In order to reduce the cost and time of production, factories produced same-shaped shoes for both feet! Their shape was straight and flat making them uncomfortable and unstable.

Makeup

To complete the image of Victorian beauty we can not miss skincare.

The use of obvious makeup and toiletries was considered immoral. It was, of course, a common secret that all women used cosmetics, often hiding them in bottles with other labels, to be passed on as medicines, for example.

There were two dominant trends in the makeup of the time: the Natural (The English Rose look) and the… Kardashian! (the too painted).

The painted look was not for everyone. It was chosen by women who were so rich that they did not care about social conformities and gossip, or by women of a more ‘unconventional’ way of life.

But if you chose it, it became part of yourself and you could never go back to the natural look for two reasons: because everyone knew you were a painted lady and due to the fact your skin was so damaged by the use of paint that you couldn’t show it anymore without it.

Women used poster colors to cover the natural tone of the skin on the head, neck, and hands and achieved the color of a living dead. These paints, however, contained a highly corrosive lead, so each time a larger amount of paint was needed to cover the damage the previous layer had made.

They washed their face with ammonia to make it softer… Many women dropped Atropa Belladonna in their eyes to have dilated eye pupils to transmit innocence and be considered more attractive. However, Belladonna has alkaloids that caused severe toxicity as well as death, which the ladies of course knew.

Number One Source of Poisoning

But the trademarked and number one source of poisoning of the time was arsenic.

Did Victorian people know that arsenic is poisonous? Yes! Did they still use it, literally everywhere, as a pigment and as a beauty product? Yes! Even when it was clearly associated with multiple deaths.

In order to achieve a natural whitish complexion, many women wore arsenic-containing powders resulting in them consuming a small amount of it daily. Their body tolerated higher concentrations of arsenic while the skin gradually became whitish.

The problems with this were two: first, they gradually became addicted to it and if they discontinued its use they would eventually die. Second, if they accidentally got more than they should, acute toxicity and death would occur once again (and the higher dose was an easy thing in an arsenic-filled home).

Without seeking it, the girls of the time, trying to emulate the literary, romantic aspect of philanthropy with the practices they followed, were driven near death.

One can’t help but wonder how harmful our habits and tendencies are to our health today, considering them to be normal or even healthy.

Thank you for reading this article of mine and write below your replies so that I can see them!

And please let me know your thoughts—did you enjoy the topic?

If there is anything else you’d be interested in reading about the Regency Era, feel free to let me know…

…and who knows? Maybe you will read about it soon!

Written by Olivia Bennet


Tags

Articles, Regency Romance


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  • Miss. Bennet, I can honestly say the little historical stories you and Cobalt Fairy share with us gives a little more insight into the time period you write about.
    I also wish to tell you that I purchased two of your books at the beginning of last weekend and read them both in one day. I was so moved by both of them as I cried and even giggled through them both. I went in and bought up the rest of the books I had not read. It’s a shame that you can’t write as fast as I voraciously read.

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  • This is a very informative article I had no idea of the drastic measures the women took to look pretty especially wearing cords while pregnant and dilating their eyes

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  • To what lengths one had to go through to be beautiful!!
    Thank goodness fashion today appears more body friendly (hopefully)
    Thank you for your info
    Kind regards
    Lyn

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  • Apparently, we are still using cosmetics that contain dangerous elements. I doubt if lead or arsenic are included, but other chemicals are. Just lately, I’ve read several articles on the dangers of some cosmetics. So glad I no longer use them – clean skin is all this 77 yr old needs.

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  • Even as a male, willing to admit my penchant for the Regency period, and pretty much only able to truly indulge it via romance novel, I really enjoy your articles on these little know tidbits of trivia that were so common yet very important to the way of life for the upper crusts of society during the Regency Era. (even the ordinary folk like us)!

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  • Wow, I am astonished to learn that ladies used arsenic to look pretty when they knew it was so dangerous. I guess we still do dangerous things to be pretty, such as gastric by pass.

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  • I always love the articles of information you give us about the Victorian era. Thank you for sharing your research with your readers.

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  • Very interesting. Was not aware that pregnancy also came with a corset. Poor woman and poor child. No wonder so many died during child birth.

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  • Great article, lots of information that I never heard of. Always wished I was born in the 1800,I have since changed my mind. I WOULD NOT FIT IN..Thanks for your work putting this article together.

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  • Wow. Who would have thought to put so many chemicals and poison ones at that on their bodies. Also, the fact that corsets were worn by both children and pregnant women. Result of so many deaths at childbirth. Yikes.

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  • Ok i loved this information i knew about the crinoline dresses burning but not about the rest. It always amazes me what we woman will do for fashion. I used to work walk and even jive fast in 6 inch stiletto heels. no wonder i have bad knees and have had to have a knee replacement.

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  • Hi Olivia,
    The article was very interesting and informative! I know about most of the information, but it was still fun reading about it again! Thank you for posting it!

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  • As a woman I can understand Beauty has always came at a price but it sad the lengths that they went to back then I think the corsets were the worst just to have a tiny waist, I bet they were glad when they went out of style 🙂 I love the look but man that just makes me cry..the cosmic s were another nightmare those poor ladies never knew what they were doing (sometimes) because they were never warned..but anyway I did enjoy this read thank you.

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  • Great information! I am thankful that I lived in a rational era. I only suffered curlers in my hair, tweezing my brows and 1960’s high heels.

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  • Horrendous life pursuing the unreality of the pale skin & “perfect” figure to end up disfigured in every aspect before Death claimed its due! I guess this type of pursuit was a legacy of the Elizabethan era when QE1 also used lead paint etc to enhance her beauty & had to maintain this for the remainder of her life. Today, there are lots of “remedies” advertised but thank goodness many beauty products are not subject to TGA approval in the USA & Australia even though many such poisonous products are available online. I don’ t use makeup & while I have a few lipsticks I rarely use them. I found that makeup irritated my skin & I felt that I had to itch/scratch at it most of the time so don’t apply it anymore. I do have blonde streaks put into my hair because the process roughens the hair shaft & thereby my hair style can prevail rather than it lying down flat on my head but I’m aware that this process can become damaging to my skin if I have it too often. I also have SNS on my finger nails as my own nails are rather soft & tear & this process makes the nails a little tougher. This I don’t do very often but at least every 6-8 weeks I have the acrylic applied. So, like our Victorian & Elizabethan ladies I am addicted to some kind of beauty treatment which could be harmful. Oh my!!

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  • It’s a wonder that wealthy and/or rich women survived at all! Let alone had children. They must have been a sickly bunch, for sure. I would have made the best country girl. I wouldn’t have worn a corset, and I definitely would have worn pants to ride. LOL

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  • very interesting some treatment did more harm than good. i have a grandaughter who is 17 years old and is already talking about breast enlargments so people really dont change that much. we will try to change her mind but young girls do get these ideas. please keep writing these articles. norah

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  • Oh my, well not so very long ago, my teenage years, we wore “dog collar belts” with studs to pull our waist in as tight as possible over our rope lined petticoats and full flared and netted skirts. Our petticoats were not right unless the could stand on their own staff from starch.

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  • The things we humans put ourselves through in the name of beauty is astounding, then and now. Thanks for the entertaining and informative article. Keep writing please.

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  • Thank for the update and how we have and still punish ourselves. What birth control did men and women use and was there abortions performed by many.

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