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A teenage duchess who hid her cigarette from her parents. A dancer getting ready to go on stage. A mother entertaining her children in her home. Sisters dancing at a Halloween party. Two women near a stove. All of these women lived differently — from actual royalty to anonymous nobodies. But they all died the same way: The dresses they were wearing caught fire and killed them.
In the mid-19th century, women wearing the style of the day would burst into flames if their dress caught fire — and I do mean burst. 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 boom boom, they’re all balls of fire,” says Deirdre Kelly, author of Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection.
A perfect set of circumstances combined to make these dresses particularly combustible. First, they were made of highly flammable fabric. Bobbinet, cotton muslin, gauze, and tarlatan were all open-weave fabrics that helped create the light, flowy, celestial gowns that were popular in the mid-1800s. (Think ball gowns made of ballerina tutus and bridal veils.) In gaslight, these diaphanous dresses glowed white, reinforcing gender norms of soft, gentle women and contrasting with the dirt and machinery of the Industrial Revolution, Alison Matthews David wrote in her book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present. Machines also mass-produced theses delicate fabrics for the first time, which gave women of every social class access to them, making death by fire a widespread phenomenon.
Part of what made these dresses so flammable was the same thing that made them so beautiful. These dresses were meant to give the illusion that women were dreamy, romantic figures, but that also meant they had air flowing around and through them. “If you imagine a sheet of newspaper and a hunk of wood, essentially, chemically, they are the same. But one will catch light way more quickly than the other. So if you have a very flimsy, flowing something that mixes well with air, it will burn quite readily,” says Martin Bide, a professor in the textiles, fashion merchandising, and design department at the University of Rhode Island.
These dresses, combined with candles and gaslight in a world before electricity, led to a multitude of women being taken by the flame. Matthews David wrote that in 1860, British medical journal the Lancet estimated that 3,000 women in one year died by fire. That’s roughly equivalent to the amount of women murdered in the US in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most vulnerable to death by fire may have been ballet dancers, who often wore tarlatan and gauze costumes and who danced close to gaslight every time they were on stage.
In 1862, at a dress rehearsal for an opera, dancing superstar Emma Livry wore a costume that evoked the ethereality of the ideal feminine ballerina. It had a corset bodice and a fluffy skirt that ended around her calves. But before her entrance, her skirts got too close to a gaslight and her costume caught fire. Instead of an angelic beauty floating across the stage, Livry became a hellish nightmare cloaked in flames. She ran around the stage in a column of fire before a fireman was able to put it out. Livry survived that night and lived another eight grueling months in recovery, only to die of blood poisoning related to the burns.
Livry isn’t the only dancer who died this way, but she is one of the most famous, so there are many documents and first-hand accounts of her death, Kelly says. Before her, there was ballet dancer Clara Webster in 1844, who was performing a ballet when her skirt caught fire. Other times, Kelly says entire corps de ballet — essentially, the background dancers — would perish by fire. In one instance in 1861, at least six ballet dancers died when they tried to help one dancer whose costume caught fire backstage. Sometimes entire theaters would burn down.
Methods to make fabric flame-resistant existed — in fact, they were required for theater workers in France by decree in 1859. But Livry refused this process because it made the fabric yellow and stiff — the opposite of the delicate beauty that ballet was supposed to depict. Many dancers were poor and needed money from male benefactors to survive on top of their small salary. Dancers could either choose to be beautiful to excel at their job or attract wealthy men, or to be safe from fire but deemed unattractive. These choices had financial implications, as well as safety implications. Like many choices women face daily about what they wear or how they act, what may seem obvious in hindsight is complex in the moment.
But often, women didn’t choose to live dangerously; it was just dangerous to live.
In 1861, Fanny Longfellow, wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sat down at a table in her home to play with her children. A match or lit paper ignited her dress. In 1865, two women in New York came too close to a hot stove, which lit their dresses on fire. They weren’t even named in their death notice. In 1867, the Archduchess Mathilde of Austria held a cigarette behind her back to hide it from her father. The lit cigarette caused her dress to catch fire. In 1871, sisters Mary and Emily Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s half sisters) were at a Halloween party. While one of the sisters was dancing, her dress caught fire. The other sister rushed to help her, catching fire herself.
All of these women burned to death in front of their families or friends. None of them were doing anything particularly risky at the time except for wearing clothes around a source of light or a cigarette — something men could do without the same risk. “There is a burden on women to think about their bodies in space in a way that men don’t have to,” Matthews David says. “The only fire I found for men really was a guy who left a lit pipe in his suit because woolen suits were pretty flameproof.”
It wasn’t just the fabric, but also the shape of the dresses that caused women’s clothing to erupt in flames. The popular silhouette in the 1850s was a giant bell shape, like Scarlett O’Hara in her curtain dress. “The appeal of the large skirt was that it made you look more slender from the waist up,” says Colleen Hill, a curator at the Museum at FIT. This full skirt, and the air underneath it, created what’s essentially a funnel for fire, with a human body at the center.
To get that voluminous shape, women used a cage crinoline, a contraption introduced in the 1850s generally made from hoops that were attached with tape and then fastened around the waist, Hill says. “It looks like obviously we’re putting women in a cage in that time period, but in many ways it was considered to be a liberating garment,” Hill says.
The crinoline allowed women to shed layers of petticoats that previously helped them create that bell shape, and thus allowed women to walk more easily with space for their legs and fewer layers of heavy fabric on their bodies. The large circumference of the crinoline also created a protective barrier for women and allowed them to take up space in the world. (Imagine sitting next to a man-spreader while you were wearing an eight-foot hoop skirt, and you might see the appeal.)
These ephemeral gowns were deadly. But wearing them also made it easier for some women to live. Around the 1870s, Hill says that fashion trends evolved, and bustles became popular, which shifted the fullness of the dress to the back but were slim in the front. By the 1890s and early 1900s, skirts slimmed down all around. More than 100 years later, fashion has changed even further, but performing femininity is still a struggle for women to navigate. The risk of failing may not include catching fire, but there are often still explosive consequences — like an article undermining your first day of a new job because of your outfit. At least now when women get burned for what they wear, it’s not quite so literal.