When Jo March scorched her dress in Louisa Mae Alcott's LITTLE WOMEN, it seemed almost a joke, especially when she admitted it wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Actually, fire was not a friend to long skirts and petticoats of that time period. Many fabrics, especially for summer, were loosely woven to allow air to cool the wearer. Men, whose garments were constructed of less flammable and tightly woven fabric, were not so likely to be involved.
These dangerous feminine materials included cotton muslin, gauze, and tarlatan. They also appeared whiter and almost gossamer by candlelight, emphasizing that women are perfect, delicate, ephemeral beings. The very construction that made them popular also made them deadly. If there was crinoline in their petticoat, the flammability was increased several times.
|Dancers by Edgar Degas|
example of ephemeral fabric
In July 1861, Fanny, the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was seated at her library table amusing her two youngest children when a spark caught her dress. She was engulfed in flames before her husband could save her and died the following day. I can’t imagine the horror her children and husband witnessed.
Oscar Wilde’s two half-sisters died of burns when one went too close to a fire while wearing a ball gown and the other rushed to help her.
In an article for Racked, Rae Nudson reported that in the mid-19th century, women wearing the style ballgown of the day could burst into fire. Their dresses were so dangerously flammable that if they caught fire, it would spread in an instant, sometimes leading to groups of women dying at the same time.
“It’s not a build-up like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re smoking, let me tamp that out.’ It’s like, ‘Ahh! Your girlfriend beside you is a ball of fire, and you’re now a ball of fire, and boom boom boom boom boom, they’re all balls of fire.’ Says Dierdre Kelly, author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind The Symbol of Perfection.
Since cotton muslin was a common dress fabric in the West, one can extend the hazard to our early settlers. Especially for women cooking over an open fire/fireplace, this would have led to many injuries and fatalities. Life was filled with so many dangers that it's a wonder our ancestors lived long enough to pass their genes on to us.
Fabric hazards didn’t stop with the 19th century. In the 1960s a coworker of my mother’s was ironing clothes for her and her husband to wear to work that day. Her synthetic nightgown touched her iron. The fabric ignited instantly and melted to her body before her husband could reach her. She died of her injuries that day.
Many of us can remember when flame retardant fabric became available for children's pajamas and then for Halloween costumes. Thank heavens that danger has diminished.
Throughout history, women have subjected themselves to fashion hazards. In all probability, no one thought what she was doing would prove dangerous. That was just the style of the day. Today, we can still get ‘burned’ for our clothing, but ours is not so literal.
Caroline Clemmons is the author of DANIEL McCLINTOCK, now available at http://amzn.to/2J14ukP
Five star reviews include:
"Oh I thoroughly enjoyed this forth book in the McClintock series! I felt so sorry for Daniel at the end of the last book. I should have known Caroline Clemmons would give him his own book. She sent to him an angel in the form of Clara. She was spunky and confident, just what he needed to want to care again about a future. I enjoyed this storyline, so different from others and her characters are always so likeable, it's fun to follow them to their HEA."