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The high heel was reintroduced into Western fashion in the late 1850s as part of the nostalgia for the 18th century dress that captured fashionable imaginations of the period. Along with this interest in 18th century came the spectre of the licentious woman, this pair of boudoir slippers which features many hallmarks of 18th century mules, would have been perfect for this highly charged image of femininity. (Ron Wood/Bata Shoe Museum)
The high heel was reintroduced into Western fashion in the late 1850s as part of the nostalgia for the 18th century dress that captured fashionable imaginations of the period. Along with this interest in 18th century came the spectre of the licentious woman, this pair of boudoir slippers which features many hallmarks of 18th century mules, would have been perfect for this highly charged image of femininity. (Ron Wood/Bata Shoe Museum)

What is a fashion museum? Add to ...

The mission of the modern museum is essentially democratic: It is to allow public access to the rare and the expensive or the specialized and esoteric, to things that only the very wealthy or the educated specialists have previously touched. Increasingly they feel they have a mission not just to educate but to argue, to make a point. As their exhibitions and their proliferating explanatory texts become more essay-like, they become interesting forums for the presentation of the latest academic views in history and sociology – which themselves tend, these days, to be at the very least non-conformist and frequently openly revolutionary.

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The Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto, a showcase owned entirely by a corporation rather than the state or a university, has been rather brave in this regard, making its collection more than an assortment of the quirky and fabulous, but a place for actual historical research and assertion.

Its new show, Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century, combines a collection of extraordinary clothes and accessories – lots of highly ornamented and finely worked shoes and boots, but also dresses, coats, hats and reproductions of the advertising and caricature of the age – and a lot of text, text that makes an argument about the benefits and drawbacks of the rise of industrialized mass-production. It is about changing labour practices, the role of women and class differences, not just aesthetics and craftsmanship.

This, of course, has always been what the best of fashion history has been about, and the two curators of this show – Bata Shoe Museum senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack and Ryerson University professor Alison Matthews David – are about as serious as they come. Both work on issues of the creation of gender. David, who has a PhD from Stanford, is doing research on the subject of fashion and harm, and has received some Canadian federal grant money for it. (So I guess you could argue that the Canadian government has indirectly subsidized this show, which is fine with me.)

There have been many articles published in the past on excessively painful fashions of history – foot binding, corsetry, lead-based face powder – but they have tended to focus on the damage caused to the wearer, stressing the folly of human (read: feminine) vanity. This show adds a twist, seeing harm on a wider scale, through a much more contemporary lens: proposing that the toxic conditions of much clothing manufacture, caused by such things as the new synthetic dyes of the 19th century, created greater risk for the labourers than for the privileged who could wear their gorgeous handiworks. And that although mass-production led to dangerous working conditions of different kinds, it democratized fashion and eliminated some of the worst poisons of the hand-crafting era.

The gallery itself is given a Victorian appearance, with ornate panelled-wood display casing. As one walks through these arcades of bright and delicate objects – a bright-green silk dress, tainted by arsenic; a lustrous, satiny top hat, manufactured with mercury; hand-embroidered slippers made in poverty; boots shined by underfed children – one starts to develop a strange sense of the toxicity of beauty itself.

One of the most alarming tales told by the exhibition’s panels is that of the inflammatory danger of wide skirts held up by steel-cage crinolines, a fashion that began in the late 1850s. European women were constantly bursting into flames because their giant hooped skirts easily came into contact with fireplaces and candles. The large volume of air under the skirts fed the flames. Rapid incineration followed. At the height of the fashion in Britain, 3,000 women a year were dying in this manner. Even Oscar Wilde’s two half-sisters were so immolated.

The overwhelming impact of these stories is like that of a fairy tale in which the gorgeous is a lure to danger. All that shines and blooms here hides a poisonous root.

The fantasy reminded me of a classic of 19th-century literature, Zola’s Nana, about a beautiful woman with a rapacious soul: Her sensuality, and her class-climbing, lead to a horrible disfiguring death, in which her lust explodes into rotting sores. You could say that both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s Salome have similar themes.

What is brave, I think, about this particular prism on clothing is that it is neither frivolous nor scolding: It celebrates the beautiful and intricate and luxurious – for who can resist admiring an entirely embroidered coat or a calf-hugging, gold-buttoned boot? – but not naively; it acknowledges the harm caused by all greedy inequality, but it does not moralize about the danger of the aesthetic itself or condemn women for their vanity. It is sensitive but not anti-beauty; this strikes me as appropriately modern. Who would have thought of a corporate repository of fashion as a place for nuanced discussion of social progress?

Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century continues at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum until June 30, 2016.

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