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From hard pants to consumer chic: how pandemics influence fashion

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This detail from Nicolas de Largillière’s “Ex-voto Sainte Genevive”, 1696, shows the fashionable powdered wigs that hid the hair loss caused by syphilis. (Public domain)

Flip through a fashion history book and you’ll see rising and falling hems, an assortment of hairstyles and gravity-defying pants from all descriptions.

You will have to read between the lines, however, to discover the many ways viruses and bacteria have shaped these styles through the ages.

Fashion as we know it Clothing and cosmetic trends that change from year to year were started by the Black Death. Before this pandemic ravaged Eurasia from 1346, European clothing had been more or less the same for centuries. By the mid-1300s, however, styles began to change more rapidly.

Because of the plague, the wealthy elites suddenly had more pocket money. The Black Death wiped out at least a third of Europe’s population, and the survivors inherited the fortunes of their deceased parents. As a result, per capita wealth increased in Europe and more people could afford regular wardrobe updates. Being able to keep up with the trends has become a new sign of wealth.

So far, the COVID pandemic hasn’t exactly elevated our fashion. Instead, what the New Yorker dubbed “slob-chic“is the order of the day. Pajamas are here, bras and suits are out. The coronavirus has even settled the controversy over the qualification of leggings as pants: they certainly do. The hard pants, the clothes formerly called “jeans”, are now officially second-hand clothes.

A dying woman is lying on a balcony as the grim reaper, representing tuberculosis, stands above her. Watercolor by Richard Tennant Cooper, ca. 1912. (Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection)

At the same time, the pandemic has brought a whole new element to our wardrobes: the face mask. Masks have been a common accessory in East Asia for a century, but COVID has made them the norm around the world. While we wore masks for convenience, we can’t help but give a little aesthetic touch to everything we wear and almost as soon as they became recommended protective gear, masks were available in a variety of stores. wide range of patterns and styles.

A number of other fashion trends have been entrenched in disease prevention. The heavy kohl eyeliner worn by the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians had antimicrobial properties that prevented eye infections. Millennia later, the theory that facial hair could harbor germs contributed to beard decline in the early 20th century.

Other styles have appeared to cover up the symptoms of the disease. Thick white face makeup became fashionable in Tudor, England because it was worn by Queen Elizabeth I, who used it to cover up facial scars from a smallpox infection. Powdered wigs became fashionable in 17th century Europe due to the prevalence of syphilis, the most obvious symptom of which was hair loss.

That rosy-cheeked look

In one of the strangest episodes in fashion history, a contagious disease itself became all the rage. Tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs and other parts of the body, was epidemic in North America and Europe at the end of the 18th century.

Popularly known as “consumption” because the disease wasted victims’ bodies as if they were consumed from within the disease sparked a fashion craze that we now call “consumer chic”.

A detail of Madame X by John Singer Sargent, 1884, is a portrait of Parisian socialite Virginie Gautreau, an expert in consumer makeup. Gautreau powdered her skin with lavender, painted faux veins in indigo, and tinted her ears red to create the illusion of a translucent complexion. (Public domain)

Imagine a fair-skinned dress with rosy cheeks, silky hair and shining eyes, the consummate beauty of Georgian times. Instead of making its victims unsightly, tuberculosis has only reinforced these desirable characteristics.

A constant, mild fever made the lips red, cheeks flushed, and eyes glistening. Low red blood cell count and low blood calcium level made the hair thin and smooth. Loss of appetite and chronic diarrhea resulted in weight loss and made the skin pale and translucent.

Even the exhaustion caused by illness had a romantic appeal.

Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff, who kept a diary while dying of consumption, wrote: “I constantly cough! But, for a wonder, far from making me ugly, it gives me an air of languor which is very much in the making.”

Tuberculosis had other favorable associations which contributed to its appeal. Before the bacteria responsible for tuberculosis were discovered, it was believed that susceptibility to the disease was innate and attractive women belonging to respectable classes were considered particularly vulnerable.

Cursed beauty, indeed

Consumption was also linked in the public imagination to artistic genius. A symptom of tuberculosis, a state of euphoria called phthisica spes, was designed to lead to increased creativity; some famous victims, like the poet John Keats, created their best work shortly before their death.

LISTEN | Ainsley Hawthorn and Andrew Hawthorn discuss how pandemics throughout history have influenced clothing and style:

St John’s Morning Show9:07Apocalypse Then: the fashion of the plague

The pandemic has changed more than the way we live and work: it also changes the way we dress. Ainsley and Andrew Hawthorn examine how plagues can fuel fashion trends in this week’s Apocalypse Then. 9:07

In 1852, the French writer Alexandre Dumas, Jr., wrote about the disease: “It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everyone was devouring, the poets in particular; it was a good form to cough up blood after any emotion that was at all sensational and to die before you were thirty. “

Tuberculosis was an affliction of sensitive and passionate souls, closely tied to glamorous images of doomed beauty and tragic genius. Yet few people were willing to risk an untimely wasteful death just for the sake of aesthetics.

This portrait of John Keats was painted by his friend Joseph Severn in 1819, two years before the poet’s death from tuberculosis. (Public domain)

Instead, fashionable women have used a variety of cosmetic treatments to mimic the symptoms of consumption, many of which are also said to have been harmful to their health.

They ate arsenic platelets to clarify and whiten their skin. If the arsenic didn’t produce the desired effect, they applied a lead foundation for the pallor and lavender powder for a ghostly blue tint. They rinsed their hair with ammonia to soften it and wore restrictive corsets to create a slender figure.

Tuberculosis went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century when it became clear that the disease was contagious and, as a result, it became pestilential rather than sucking.

Consuming beauty standards, however, live in our idealization of impossible thinness, our fascination with wasted celebrities, and our global thirst for fair skin.


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