The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto is one of my favourite places to visit whenever I find myself craving inspiration. Also, the shoes. I love shoes. Last year, the museum launched a new exhibit titled Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century and since then, I’ve been meaning to drop by the museum to check it out. I managed to make some time.
This particular exhibit interested me not just for the fashion, but because of it’s take on what it meant to be a “fashion victim.” The increase of manufacturing and chemistry introduced new dyes and technologies during the nineteenth century produced marvelous fabrics, new styles, and elegance. But it also introduced new health risks: from the factories and new jobs (e.g. shoeshine boys), to thread laced with poison, and dresses made of flammable materials, fashion was dangerous as much as it was enviable. Technologies as the sewing machine, transformed traditional jobs and the domestic space: as jobs for tailors were replaced by machines, thousands of women were employed into the new shoemaking factories to work the machines.
Through a beautifully curated collection of 19th century artifacts exposing the intersection of fashion and science, you’ll see how fashion was more than a style of dress–it was a way of living, from the green embroidery on one’s boots to the leather stencils for worker’s boots. This small glimpse into the past makes us revel into a world that was just entering the perils of mass production of goods.
The exhibit is up until June 30, 2016.
One trend for fashionable women of the 19th century was to dress like Greek goddesses. Their light, gauzy fabrics of cotton muslins, thin luminous silks, or translucent tulle, were considered scandalous by the old guard. Since this trend exposed bosoms and arms, young women supposedly succumbed to “muslin fever” from being underdressed for cold weather!
Dress: American cream silk, c.1814 (Collection of Bata Shoe Museum); worn with shawl of Benares silk from India, early 1800s (Private Collection).
Shoes: French, c.1815-1820 (Collection of Bata Shoe Museum)
Floral motives served to enliven the grey environments of urban centers by rooting people back to the natural world. Even men in their off-hours got caught up with the floral trend: these “Albert” slippers are hand embodied with pansies and butterflies that are reminiscent of silk moths, the source of silk thread used in the embroidery. Shoes: French, c.1860s Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
“Perkins purple,” the first synthetic dye, was discovered by British chemist William Henry Perkins by accident. Perkins was trying to find a cure for malaria. By 1858, this new “mauve” color became incredibly popular as it spread throughout the fashionably minded.
Shoes: French, c.1860 (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
The “Louis Heel” (also called the “Pinet” heel), was invented by Jean-Louis François Pinet (1817-1897), the most famous shoemaker in France. His shoes were elaborately embellished, hand embroidered, and very, very expensive.
Shoe: French, c.1880 (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
Chemist Carl Scheele invented the first colorfast green dye in 1778 by combining poisonous arsenic with copper. Cheap and beautiful green dyes became very popular throughout the nineteenth century and were used for all sorts of things: interior decoration, fabrics, shoes, wallpapers, and even children’s toys. This “Emerald Green” ball dress was chemically tested and contains arsenic.
Dress: c.1860-1863 (Collection of Glennis Murphy)
Shoes: European, 1860s (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
Narrow shoes were popular fashion as they reflected cultural ideals about female delicacy and domesticity. They were also painful, as they negated the natural architecture of the foot, causing extreme pain for the wearer.
Shoes, c.1840s (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
Mourning clothes were part of the elaborate Victorian rituals inspired by Queen Victoria. Women in mourning were expected to follow a strict and fashionable dress code, wearing full black outfits for up to two years.
Shoes: Victorian slippers, c.1860s (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
The high-heel was reintroduced in the mid-1850s after a period of banishment during the early nineteenth century. The “Louis heel” of these boudoir slippers, reflected eighteenth-century fashion trends, including the highly erotic image of femininity. It was believed that high-heels went a long way in framing women’s roles as consumers rather than producers.
Shoes: English, c.1880-1883 (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
Penniless and homeless shoeshine boys were all over urban streets during the nineteenth century. The polishes they used for shining shoes frequently put their health at risk. Moreover, these boys were vulnerable to abuse from people taking advantage of their impoverished situation.
A shoeshine boy’s kit consisted of brushes, rags, polish, and a box to dually function as a stand for customers. Polish contained nitrobenzene: despite smelling quite pleasant, it oxidized iron in blood when contacted to the skin, causing dizziness, nausea, cyanosis, and even death.
Shoeshine kit, American, c.19th century (Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum)
Occupational portrait of a woman working a sewing machine.
Daguerreotype, c.1853 (Library of Congress)
The industrialization of shoemaking introduced a variety of formidable and fashionable footwear at different price points. The sewing machine additionally allowed for the mass production of shoes, allowing for product consistency at an accessible price, which were sold in department stores.