[CW: I mean, it’s about poison clothing]
This week’s theme is clothing folklore and, as usual, I searched to find something interesting and unusual. What I found is apparently a well-known trope that crops up here and there throughout history. As with many urban legends, there is little to back up this particular legend but we’ve all seen it at least once or twice.
As you can imagine, the idea is relatively simple. An item of clothing has been coated with poison on the inside so that when it touches the flesh of the victim, the poison is absorbed into their skin and they die a horrific and painful death. It’s not fun but it’s apparently pretty popular.
The first thing that came to mind, for me, was the Greek myths about Hercules and the Shirt of Nessus. Essentially, the dying centaur, Nessus, convinces Hercules’s wife, Deaineira, to give Hercules a shirt that has been stained with the centaur’s blood. The centaur tells her that this is a love potion that will guarantee Hercules’s fidelity. Unfortunately, the blood was contaminated by the hydra blood that coated the arrow that Hercules used to kill the centaur in the first place.
Due to the fact that Hercules was sweaty AF, the poison seeped into his skin remarkably fast and he began to burn as if his skin was on fire. Given that medical treatment at the time was not reliable or even safe, Hercules chose to just build a great big funeral pyre and throw himself into it. As solutions go it’s a bit extreme but needs must.
In Indian folklore we have the legend of the “killer khilats.” Khilats are robes of honor and figure into stories of tainted gifts of clothing. The robes were given to both friends and enemies to cement social and political contracts. The fear of betrayal in the form of a poisoned robe was ever-present but so were gifts of clothing. This gift-giving essentially became a game of “is it or isn’t it?” and they had no choice but to play. Stories of these infected robes are so old that they date back to the Old Testament.
While it isn’t historical in any way, some of you might also remember the scene in the 1998 movie, Elizabeth, where one of Elizabeth’s ladies tries on a tainted dress that was sent to Elizabeth by the French court. The young woman then engages in some sweat-inducing activity which causes the poison the seep into her skin, killing her in a rather violent manner. Even though it didn’t actually happen, it could have. I mean, it’s ingenious and absolutely dastardly.
The final items on the menu are the poison dresses that weren’t meant to be poisonous. They were just supposed to be super fabulous.
In the 19th century a particular shade of green, Scheele’s Green, took the Victorian dress-making world by storm and carried off a fair number of victims. This vibrant, rich, and very decadent shade was created through the use of an arsenic compound and it found its way into literally EVERYTHING. Wallpaper, candles, paint, even children’s toys. Any of these would be fatal given enough time but the one that everyone likes to talk about is its use as a dye for cloth. And, to be fair, it did produce just an absolutely magical dress:
Unfortunately, as will happen, the women wearing these dresses were going to be sweaty on occasion. I don’t care what you’ve heard about Victorian ladies; they perspired just like anyone. And even though they would also have been wearing a shift, corset, and layers of petticoats and other accoutrement, the poison was going to seep into their skin eventually. This was compounded by the fact that people really didn’t have a whole lot of wardrobe changes back then. A dress like the one above would have cost quite a bit so it was going to be worn quite a bit. The cumulative effects of exposure to the arsenic would have been terrible.
Even worse, though, are the people who had to work with the dye directly. The women wearing the dresses were shielded to a certain extent but dressmaking was a hands-on affair. From the dying of the cloth to the creation of the dress, the dye was unavoidable. Even just cutting the cloth would release fabric particles into the air that would then be breathed in. Everyone was being poisoned because the green was just such a pretty green! The lengths to which we will go to to look amazing are limitless, apparently.
So the next time you slip into that fabulous new outfit that one of your frenemies decided to surprise you with, maybe think twice. Maybe toss it in a biohazard bin and walk away. I’m not saying that they’re absolutely trying to kill you. I’m just saying…