Broadly DK

The Long, Strange History of Women Wearing Deadly Clothing

In myths and fairytales, women poisoned their rivals with gaudy accessories; in the 19th century, they unknowingly wore dresses dyed with arsenic.

by Rosalind Jana
Mar 7 2017, 4:35pm

In 1995, Richard Avedon's photo series  In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort was first published in the  New Yorker. Ostensibly a fashion shoot, it features, as most shoots do, a model (Nadja Auermann) clothed in exquisitely designed garments. She is caught in a series of scenarios: sweeping up, posing for a camera, embracing her partner. The catch? Her partner is an actual human skeleton. He is also clothed, and his suits hang awkwardly from scapula and rib cage, a trilby tilted jauntily across the skull. As a visual narrative it's both disturbing and deeply beautiful, with flesh, bone, and fabric in close proximity. Here, life and death, quite literally, rub shoulders.

The photos also figure as a clever examination of the relationship between fashion and death, a relationship that remains continually fascinating. Clothes stay close to the skin during life, and continue to exist long after the body has decayed. No wonder we're often aware of their status—sometimes intimately, sometimes devastatingly—as memento mori.

But clothing's relationship with death is more complicated than that of a mere reminder or relic: Over the years, garments have also, with surprising regularity, been a cause of death, too. As art historian Alison Mathews David argues in  Fashion Victim: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, "clothing, which is supposed to shield our fragile, yielding flesh from danger, often fails spectacularly in this important task."

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