October ushers us into spooky season, and for those looking for a scare, we’re featuring a frightening piece from our historic collection. Most likely dyed with arsenic, this dress is a hazardous material and requires additional precautions to safely manage.
This dress was worn by Charlotte de Lorimier at her July 1859 wedding to Charles M. Weatherby. Before the Queen Victoria-inspired trend of a white wedding dress fully took hold, it was common to wear one’s best dress for marriage and it could be any color.
The period of this dress causes us to suspect that its green hue is the result of either Scheele’s Green or Paris Green. Scheele’s Green was invented in 1775. Prior to that there were few options available to produce green textiles, which made any very costly. Scheele’s Green produced a yellow-green color that faded easily. Paris Green was introduced in 1814 as an improvement. It offered a deeper emerald color that resisted fading. The secret to both dyes was arsenic. It wasn’t until after World War I that safe and stable green dyes were widely available. Until then, arsenic was used to achieve the coveted green color in clothing, artificial flowers, wallpaper, and even in candy, despite knowledge that it was a poison.
If it was in fact dyed with arsenic, which only a chemical test can confirm, this dress likely posed little threat to its wearer as undergarments would have prevented most skin contact. The greatest danger would be if the fabric got wet, such as through sweating or getting caught in the rain, as this improved skin absorption of the arsenic. While initially frightening, the dress today is a manageable risk in the collection and receives special consideration for exhibit, storage, and handling.