Fashion Can Be Toxic. Smell at Your Own Risk!

A Review of the Met’s Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion Exhibition

–Zara Korutz

visitor at the Met's Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion
A visitor smelling the exhibition. Photo: REUTERS, Jeenah Moon

The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute spring exhibition Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion is housed in a massive, modern space designed by Leong Long, showcasing over 220 lust-worthy fashion and accessory pieces, both old and new. ‘Sleeping Beauties’, the exhibition, is an artistic extension of this year’s Met Gala theme “Garden of Time,” which is centered around the short story “In The Garden of Time” by JG Ballard (1962)— a fictional metaphor for the natural cycle of life. 

Sleeping Beauties features a participatory curatorial design approach celebrating nature throughout 26 galleries centered around flowers, insects, birds, and marine life juxtaposed with manufactured olfactory (smell) storytelling.  It’s easy to take an “In the Met We Trust” attitude when entering through the exhibition doors; however, with a themed concept that presents “sleeping” garments that are “reawakened” by chemically reproducing their odor molecules, it’s more suitable to “Smell at Your Own Risk!”

Chemical compounds featured throughout the exhibition produce synthetic smells (some rather faint or off-putting) that are distributed via tubes, open-top glass crucibles, and a large-scale scratch-and-sniff wall inviting all visitors to partake in the sensory experience.

These images of the exhibition show the tubes on display that encourage visitors to smell the manufactured chemical odors. -Photos Zara Korutz

Scientist and art cult figure Sissel Tolaas designed the exhibition’s olfactory immersion. Tolass studied organic chemistry, mathematics, art and linguistics at universities in Oslo, Warsaw, St Petersburg, and Oxford and completed her PhD in chemistry in Moscow. Prior to the Met exhibition, she worked with Balenciaga on custom scents and set designs for runway presentations.

As described in the exhibition information, replicating the numerous garment odors took place by extracting “peak” molecules using a microfilter to trap air and moisture drawn through a glass barrel with a pump. The molecules were then absorbed and analyzed for identification and chemical replication by Symrise, a chemical manufacturing company and show supporter. 

Photo: Zara Korutz
This image of the exhibition description that breaks down the “Peak Smell Molecules” and corresponding chemical compound.
 

The exhibition lists the names of over 100 different chemicals used to replicate natural smells found in garments. 

Still, notably, the smells are synthesized rather than reproduced with natural ingredients. Some chemicals used in the exhibition are Alpha-pinene, Dodecane, and Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether, which can be harmful and even toxic to humans, while other chemicals like Amyl Salicylate (AS), a fragrance commonly used as a personal care product, when discharged in wastewaters may end up in the aquatic environment representing a potential threat for the ecosystem and living organisms.

Chemical manufacturing has a significant negative impact on the environment, including air and water pollution, soil contamination, greenhouse gas emissions, and the depletion of natural resources.

The production and use of chemicals contribute to climate change and can harm human health, wildlife, and ecosystems. Some chemicals have adverse effects on organisms, even at low concentrations. Others, however, do not cause significant harm until their concentrations accumulate at the top of food chains. Chemicals can impact the environment and organisms in very different ways, depending on each chemical’s properties and usage.

‘Sleeping Beauties’ is not the first multi-sensory participatory curatorial design approach in a museum exhibition. 

In 2010, Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds— a vast expanse of almost 100 million hand-painted ceramic sunflower seeds commissioned by the global consumer goods corporation Unilever—was deemed too toxic for visitors to touch. Originally designed to be an interactive installation, curators at the Tate Modern soon noticed that Sunflower Seeds threatened to permeate the gallery’s air –and visitors’ bodies– with airborne ceramic dust. This led to the museum prohibiting visitors from interacting with the seeds to prevent the proliferation of dust particles that could endanger respiratory health. 

No matter how dangerous a chemical substance or activity is, it cannot harm you without exposure—so why ubiquitously incorporate its use into the Sleeping Beauties exhibition?  Critically, the use of chemical smells in the Met’s exhibition can be understood as a gimmick or manufactured spectacle, similar to the spectacle of the Met Gala, that usurps meaningful and deep conversations for the shock value of the absurd.

French Theorist Guy Debord (1931-1994), who wrote The Society of the Spectacle in 1967 and Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in 1988, says the spectacle is a “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life” impacting the degradation of knowledge which alienates critical thought and promotes a vapid unfulfilled self-identity. 

Sleeping Beauties is the perfect example of luxury fashion’s toxic practices hiding in plain sight and without transparent warning signs of the potential dangers of consumption.

One may argue that mass audiences are blinded by the shiny fashion objects presented in extravagance and, therefore, unknowingly consume harmful toxins. Looking past the commodification of fashion’s glitz and glam, we can educate ourselves on the potential dangers –critically asking questions and seeking answers. 

Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen

Below is a sampling of the chemicals in the exhibition referencing the NIH National Library of Medicine /Dow Chemical/and ILO and WHO catalog of material data safety references. 


(DISCLAIMER: This list is not meant to suggest that the odors used in the Met’s exhibition are harmful and toxic; rather, it is intended to shed light on the potential dangers of these chemicals to humans and the planet.)

Alpha-pinene: CONSIDERED A HAZARDOUS SUBSTANCE ACCORDING TO OSHA 29 CFR 1910.1200. Irritating to skin. May cause SENSITISATION by skin contact. HARMFUL – May cause lung damage if swallowed.

Amyl Salicylate: Signal Warning. H302 (16.6%): Harmful if swallowed [Warning Acute toxicity, oral] H400 (18.24%): Very toxic to aquatic life [Warning Hazardous to the aquatic environment, acute hazard] H410 (22.32%): Very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects [Warning Hazardous to the aquatic environment, long-term hazard] H411 (77.63%): Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects [Hazardous to the aquatic environment, long-term hazard]

Benzoic Acid: Signal Danger. H302 (29.97%): Harmful if swallowed [Warning Acute toxicity, oral] H315 (83.46%): Causes skin irritation [Warning Skin corrosion/irritation] H318 (81.96%): Causes serious eye damage [Danger Serious eye damage/eye irritation] H319 (16.57%): Causes serious eye irritation [Warning Serious eye damage/eye irritation] H335 (10.73%): May cause respiratory irritation [Warning Specific target organ toxicity, single exposure; Respiratory tract irritation] H372 (23.24%): Causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure [Danger Specific target organ toxicity, repeated exposure]

Dodecane: Signal Danger. GHS Hazard Statements. H304 (54.28%): May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways [Danger Aspiration hazard] H319 (46.38%): Causes serious eye irritation [Warning Serious eye damage/eye irritation] IDENTIFICATION AND USE: Dodecane is a colorless liquid. Dodecane is a component of gasoline and is used as solvent, in organic synthesis, in jet fuel research, as a distillation chaser, and in the rubber and paper processing industries. HUMAN EXPOSURE AND TOXICITY: Dodecane may be harmful if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. It can be irritating to mucous membranes.

Ethyl-1-hexene: Signal Warning. GHS Hazard Statements H226 (96.12%): Flammable liquid and vapor [Warning Flammable liquids] H315 (99.03%): Causes skin irritation [Warning Skin corrosion/irritation] H411 (97.09%): Toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects [Hazardous to the aquatic environment, long-term hazard]

Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether: Acute Toxic. Can cause serious or permanent injury.
Signal Danger. H302 (16.03%): Harmful if swallowed [Warning Acute toxicity, oral]
H312 (14.5%): Harmful in contact with skin [Warning Acute toxicity, dermal]
H318 (50.76%): Causes serious eye damage [Danger Serious eye damage/eye irritation]
H319 (34.73%): Causes serious eye irritation [Warning Serious eye damage/eye irritation]
Inhalation Symptoms Cough. Dizziness. Drowsiness. Headache. Nausea. Weakness. 

Isooctanol: Signal Warning. H302 (91.84%): Harmful if swallowed [Warning Acute toxicity, oral]

H315 (92.91%): Causes skin irritation [Warning Skin corrosion/irritation] H319 (89.36%): Causes serious eye irritation [Warning Serious eye damage/eye irritation] H335 (32.62%): May cause respiratory irritation [Warning Specific target organ toxicity, single exposure; Respiratory tract irritation] H336 (31.56%): May cause drowsiness or dizziness [Warning Specific target organ toxicity, single exposure; Narcotic effects] H412 (32.62%): Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects [Hazardous to the aquatic environment, long-term hazard]. The substance can be absorbed into the body by inhalation, through the skin and by ingestion. The substance is irritating to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. The substance may cause effects on the central nervous system. A harmful contamination of the air will not or will only very slowly be reached on evaporation of this substance at 20°C (68F)

Isodragol by Symrise aka Triisononanoin: Signal Warning. If breathing is difficult, remove to fresh air and keep at rest in a position comfortable for breathing. For breathing difficulties, oxygen may be necessary. Call a physician if symptoms develop or persist. Take off immediately all contaminated clothing. Get medical attention if irritation develops and persists. Wash skin thoroughly with soap and water for several minutes. Remove contact lenses, if present and easy to do. Get medical attention if irritation develops and persists. Promptly wash eyes with plenty of water while lifting the eye lids. Call a physician or poison control center immediately. If swallowed, rinse mouth with water (only if the person is conscious). Do not induce vomiting. If vomiting occurs, the head should be kept low so that stomach vomit doesn’t enter the lungs. Direct contact with eyes may cause temporary irritation. Ensure that medical personnel are aware of the material(s) involved and take precautions to protect themselves. Show the safety data sheet to the doctor in attendance.

Isopropyl Myristate: Signal Warning. Inhalation Remove to fresh air. If not breathing, give artificial respiration. Get medical attention if symptoms occur. Personal Precautions Ensure adequate ventilation. Use personal protective equipment as required. Environmental Precautions should not be released into the environment. Keep in a dry, cool and well-ventilated place. Keep container tightly closed. Incompatible Materials. Oxidizing agent.

Kodaflex: Signal Warning. H361 (68.37%): Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child [WarningReproductive toxicity] H361d (19.8%): Suspected of damaging the unborn child [Warning Reproductive toxicity] H412 (97.14%): Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects [Hazardous to the aquatic environment, long-term hazard]

Phenoxyethanol: Signal Danger. H302 (99.84%): Harmful if swallowed [Warning Acute toxicity, oral] H318 (11.16%): Causes serious eye damage [Danger Serious eye damage/eye irritation] H319 (88.82%): Causes serious eye irritation [Warning Serious eye damage/eye irritation] H335 (11.2%): May cause respiratory irritation [Warning Specific target organ toxicity, single exposure; Respiratory tract irritation]. The substance is irritating to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. The substance may cause effects on the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system. This may result in impaired functions. 

Squalene: Signal Danger. H304 (98.6%): May be fatal if swallowed and enters airways. [Danger Aspiration hazard] ACUTE/CHRONIC HAZARDS: When heated to decomposition this compound emits toxic fumes of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. (NTP, 1992)

Valeric Acid: Signal Danger. H302 (23.91%): Harmful if swallowed [Warning Acute toxicity, oral] H314 (100%): Causes severe skin burns and eye damage [Danger Skin corrosion/irritation]

H318 (30.16%): Causes serious eye damage [Danger Serious eye damage/eye irritation]

H412 (97.26%): Harmful to aquatic life with long lasting effects [Hazardous to the aquatic environment, long-term hazard]. IF INHALED: Remove person to fresh air and keep comfortable for breathing. Immediately call a POISON CENTER and/or doctor. This product is not Kosher certified. Hazard classification GHS classification in accordance with the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard (29 CFR 1910.1200)

If you have questions or comments on health and safety of chemicals, then please contact NY Health Department by email at ceheduc@health.ny.gov or call 911 in case of a medical emergency. For more information, https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/about/exposure.htm.

‘Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion’, will run from May 10 – September 2, 2024 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


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