This adage was literally true in Victorian times when vivid shades of green became deadly popular. The Victorian era witnessed the invention of new Argand oil gas lamps and later in 1879, electricity. Deep hues of color, illuminated by a jaunt of voluminous chandelier and lamp light, were even more brilliant when seen at night.
Green dye was all the rage in women’s wreathed headpieces, gloves and dresses. Men wore green in their waistcoats and cravats. In homes of every class, green pigments were used in wallpaper and paint. While it was well-known that arsenic was the green coloring's main component, people commonly believed they would remain unharmed as long as they didn’t "lick the wallpaper."
The arsenic in emerald green dresses acted as an irritant and caused sores all over the bodies of the rich elite. They wore the dresses anyway. In 1862, the cartoonist John Leech depicted, “The Arsenic Waltz,” in which a man and woman’s skeletons dance in evening dress, poking fun at people who choose fashion over health.
Noxious arsenic powder used to dye artificial flowers had grim consequences for the factory employees who worked with it every day. The arsenic dust would spread to their fingernails, in their mouths and they would carry it home. Scratching a nose or face would cause skin to peel around the nostrils and lips. When exposure was too long, hands and the whites of eyes would turn green. Some workers contracted gangrene; others developed syphilis-like symptoms and died.
Yet, customers still craved the popular color. As nature vanished from everyday life in the industrialized cities in America and Europe, artificial flowers were widely worn in hair despite their killer attributes.
In the 1860’s, the arsenic was often mixed with copper for deeper tones of fabric dye, heightening both the intensity and the danger of the tint. With this toxic formula, the materials became more flammable and more poisonous. Over the long term, apparel constructed from this fabric actually drove its occupant mad.
I photographed these fashion images with the deadly dye in mind. Green is one of my favorite colors and is often celebrated as a symbol of nature and life. Here it brings a beautiful death to the wearer.