Dangerous Fashion

A black and white photograph depicting a woman looking straight at the camera. She is sat on a wicker chair, leaning forward on the arm. She is wearing an oversized hat trimmed with ribbon and bows.
Photo from Vintage Everyday

What do hat pins and detachable collars have in common? They’re as deadly as they are stylish! We’re zooming in on these two historical accessories to explore the dangers they posed to both the wearer and those around them.

The hats of wealthy Edwardian women were wildly large and extravagant. They featured decorations such as bows, taffeta, feathers, fake fruit and flowers. These hats were cumbersome to wear, so required pins to secure them in place. Hat pins are sharp, steel needles, sometimes over 10-inches long. Their danger lies in the fact that they sometimes protruded several inches from the side of the hat. Women’s hat pins became a public nuisance, often poking passers-by in the face.  

Clipping from a suffragette newspaper, 1909. It is an advert from 'Charles Lee and Son' aimed at selling extravagant hats to women. There are illustrations of five women wearing beautiful hats with feathers, bows and flowers.
Advert from ‘Votes for Women’ newspaper, 1909, edited by Frederick and Emmeline Pethick Lawrence ©Stockport Museums.

Hard as it is to believe, a young woman died of a hat pin related injury right here in Stockport. A newspaper reported on the incident with the tragic headline ‘Woman’s Death Caused by a Scratch’. The article tells us that the woman died of blood poisoning after being pricked on the nose by another woman’s hat pin. For an exhibition at Hat Works in 2015, Professor Alison Goodrum provided us with more information about the incident. According to Goodrum, the victim was Mary Elizabeth Thornton and she was scratched whilst stooping down to pick up her friend’s baby. In the article the coroner expresses his outrage at women’s behaviour, stating “if they insisted on being in the fashion” would they please “take care that the pointed ends of pins were protected by shields.” He references legislation in “Hamburg and America” that “prevents the use of unprotected hatpins.”

A newspaper clipping, 1912. The text reads: "Hatpin Scratch Cause of Death. Girl at Stockport, England, Dies of Meningitis as Result of Trivial Wound. New Laws are Suggested. Jury Recommends Abolishment of Hatpins or That Points be Protected."
Newspaper clipping, 1912.

Laws against the wearing of long hatpins without stoppers were indeed proposed in some European cities. However, women in England fought against these laws. Why? Because they used their hat pins to defend themselves against the harassment of men. They were an integral part of women’s new-found freedom of movement. Coinciding with the Industrial Revolution, the late 1800s saw the birth of middle classes.  Women took up jobs outside the home, such as in shops. This meant more women were using public transport. Like today, trams and train were common sites of harassment. Women could threaten or even fend off men using their hat pins. This triggered political conversations around what constitutes harassment and what can be done about it. Unfortunately, the issue was discussed in the light of what women could do to defend themselves against harassment, rather than putting responsibility on the male perpetrators. How much has changed in 200 years?

Detachable collars were a popular fashion trend for Victorian men. They saved time and money as men could switch up their collars every day without having to change their shirts. Upper-class men often wore high, heavily starched collars. The starch made the collars stiff, giving them a neat and elegant shape. However, these collars were very tight around the throat, warranting them the nickname ‘father killers.’ If worn for too long they would cut off blood supply to the brain. They proved particularly dangerous for men to wear whilst they were drinking. Men would asphyxiate themselves by dozing off or passing out with their heads thrown forward onto their chests.

A black and white photo of a young Victorian man wearing a stripey tie, blazer, vest and high white collar.
Image from Pinterest

Like hat pins, collars could be used for self-defence. During the 1860s there was a “garrotting panic”. A sudden fear of being strangled by robbers with their arms, wire or chord spread over English cities – London in particular. This panic can be attributed to newspapers hamming up the stories of the few cases of garrotting that actually occurred. The stories exaggerated the number of incidents and dwelt on gory details. To defend themselves men would sew blades into their cravats or wear leather collars adorned with rows of tiny spikes. Although the “garrotting panic” was initiated by the media, it was also mocked by them. A Punch cartoon from 1862 (see below) makes a joke of men’s attempts to discreetly integrate weaponry into their clothes.

A brown leather collar with little, stubbly spikes all over it. The collar has a buckle at the back.
Anti-garrotting collar ©Stockport Museums.
A black and white illustration from Punch magazine. It shows a man looking in a mirror as if it's a normal day and he's getting ready to go out. He is putting on a collar with enormous spikes.
Punch illustration, 1862 from Wikipedia

Dangerous fashion is not solely a thing of the past. A health warning was issued against skinny jeans in 2015 as in extreme cases they have been known to damage muscles and nerves if the wearer sits too long in the same position. There is sometimes a high price to pay to look good!

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