Arsenic and old lace: “Romantic Fashion” symposium

Before visiting the costume exhibition at the The Hague Gemeente Museum (see “Mr Darcy”), I attended a symposium organised by the Dutch Costume Society. Of course, their symposium focussed on the exhibition.

Introduction to the exhibition

After registration and coffee at the wonderful Gember café, the first series of lectures started at the Gemeente Museum. Curator ms Hohé, gave an overview of the exhibition and changes in fashion during the era it covers. The contrast between fashion just before and after the French Revolution is already striking. But watching how fashion changed from Jane Austen’s time till the early 20th century, is dazzling.

Some problems faced when preserving and restoring costumes

In the second lecture, Mr Rodiguez Salinas talked about restoration problems museums face, when preserving costumes, cloth, accessories, for posterity.

Cloth is cut and stitched, accessories used, costumes worn, altered and show signs of wear and tear. Some fibres are stronger than others.

Until recently, cleaning was a problem. There were no washing machines, no dryers, no dry-cleaning. So dirt, fungi, insects can cause damage.

Chemical dyes were a fairly new invention. Dying can damage materials. Some chemical components are quite aggressive, even poisonous.

Then there is the combination of various materials, with one for instance not lasting as long as the other one. All in all, it was clear that many clothes simply cannot be preserved for posterity.

Nineteenth century inconveniences

Ms Montijn talked about the dreadful business of etiquette, customs, social obligations, and similar inconveniences which were part of 19th century everyday life. Some stories were hilarious, others heart-breaking.

People did not earn much money and did not own many clothes. Ever asked an elderly family member about hand-me-downs? If not, try nineteen century literature. As shown in this exhibition, bridal wear had to be practical so not white. This dress would not be worn once to church but many times. Or it was altered to serve as a maternity dress. Which reader remembers that during Dickens’ time, it were not just women who wore corsets.

During this lecture, stories from novels, biographies, and other writings were read out. One author wrote about his father, a poor shoe-maker, making a pair of hand-made boots to small. Another pair had to be made, but the faulty pair was too expensive to throw away. When they proved unsellable, the boy wore them. Fortunately, he had not yet started primary school: they were girl’s boots

Arsenic and old lace

After lunch, there followed a lecture on the “new” chemical dyes used in nineteenth century cloth. Quite a few of these new dyes are so brilliant, one is still tempted to put on sunglasses to look at costumes in which the cloth is used.

The lecture did not focus on brilliance though. It was about the use of dyes containing arsenic to colour tarlatan. One of the dresses shown in the exhibition will never be restored. The amount of arsenic used in its green dye is too high!

In the nineteenth century, people were not oblivious to this. There were plenty documented cases from the early nineteenth century onwards and in various countries throughout Europe. Such cases were reported in newspapers. But the substance was sold under a variety of names. The list shown by mr Mertens was impressive.

Even when the first sewing machines started to be used, much was still done by hand. One of the cases cited concerned the wearer of a ball gown becoming ill during a ball. On investigation, it turned out needle women who had worked on the dress also showed signs of arsenic poisoning. But as with similar twentieth century chemical and pharmaceutical cases, it took decades for this dangerous colour to be banned.

Costumes: inside – out

The most fascinating part of this symposium was the “look behind the scene”. Museum staff and volunteers showed over 20 depot pieces, from cover to bottom as well as inside.

Each nineteenth century costume – ranging from underwear, children’s clothes, day and evening wear for men and women – lay on a table. Each table was numbered. Guests were split in groups of about ten people. Each group had 10 minutes at each table, before moving on to the next costume.

Enthusiastic volunteers and staff told groups about the costume, allowing close-up views. Alterations were shown, damage was pointed out, inside stitching techniques were discussed, changes from day to evening wear revealed.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime “behind the scene” event. It was a real privilege to be shown these depot pieces in such a manner.


Of course this symposium finished with a visit to the wonderful exhibition. This temporary exhibition can be visited in the The Hague Gemeentemuseum till March 2015. For more information about ticket prices, check the museum website.

Information sought

Just after lunch, one of the guests asked for information about series of special guild “quilts”. Mrs Beukers, former magazine editor, was looking for information about knitted Guild samplers from Poland and the Alsace region. Apparently, there are only about 20 of these left worldwide. Three seem to be in American museums and a few have been located in other museums.

Nobody in the audience could help, so feel free to contact me if you have any information which might help locate these special Polish and Alsace knitted Guild works, or can provide information related to these.


2 thoughts on “Arsenic and old lace: “Romantic Fashion” symposium

  1. the guild samplers: its about the17th and 18th century knitted wallhangings which are in Poland, Strassboug and Colmar; one example is in the collection of the V&A. The construction is still a secret: were they knitted with needles or on a knitting frame?

    • Thanks for the additional info! I’m going to put the request for more info out in my History of Art network. Anybody who has museum and other contacts who may be able to help, please use the comment box,

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