Nfld. & Labrador·Apocalypse Then

From hard pants to consumptive chic: How pandemics influence fashion

Fashion as we know it — clothing and cosmetic trends that change from year to year — was kick-started by a pandemic, writes Ainsley Hawthorn in the latest instalment of our Apocalypse Then series.

We may not have noticed, but viruses and bacteria have shaped styles through the years

This detail of Ex-voto à Sainte Geneviève by Nicolas de Largilliere, 1696, shows the fashionable powdered wigs that hid the hair loss caused by syphilis. (Public domain)

Thumb through a book of fashion history, and you'll see rising and falling hemlines, an assortment of gravity-defying hairdos and trousers of every description.

You'll have to read between the lines, though, to uncover the many ways viruses and bacteria have shaped those styles through the ages.

Fashion as we know it — clothing and cosmetic trends that change from year to year — was kick-started by the Black Death. Before that pandemic ravaged Eurasia beginning in 1346, European attire had been more or less the same for centuries. In the mid-1300s, though, styles began to change at a faster clip.

Because of the plague, wealthy elites suddenly had more spending money. The Black Death wiped out at least a third of Europe's population, and the survivors inherited the fortunes of their dead relatives. As a result, per-capita wealth rose in Europe, and more people could afford regular wardrobe updates. Being able to keep up with shifting vogues became a new sign of affluence.

So far, the COVID pandemic hasn't exactly elevated our fashion. Instead, what The New Yorker has dubbed "slob-chic" is the order of the day. Pajamas are in, bras and business suits are out. The coronavirus has even settled the controversy over whether leggings qualify as pants: they certainly do. Hard pants, the garments formerly known as "jeans," are now officially occasion-wear.

A dying woman reclines on a balcony as the grim reaper, representing tuberculosis, stands over her. Watercolour by Richard Tennant Cooper, ca. 1912. (The Wellcome Collection)

At the same time, the pandemic has introduced an all-new item 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 worldwide. While we may be donning masks for practical reasons, we can't help but give a little esthetic twist to anything we wear, and, almost as soon as they became recommended protective gear, masks were available in a wide array of patterns and styles.

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

Other styles arose to cover up the symptoms of illness. Heavy white face makeup became fashionable in Tudor England because it was worn by Queen Elizabeth I, who used it to conceal facial scars from a smallpox infection. Powdered wigs came into vogue in 17th-century Europe due to the prevalence of syphilis, whose most obvious symptom was hair loss.

That rosy-cheeked look

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

Popularly known as "consumption" — because the disease wasted away victims' bodies as though they were being consumed from within — the illness sparked a fashion craze we now refer to as "consumptive chic."

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

Picture a fair-skinned waif with rosy cheeks, silken hair, and bright eyes — the consummate Georgian-era beauty. Instead of making its victims unsightly, tuberculosis only enhanced these sought-after features.

A constant, low-grade fever made the lips red, the cheeks flushed, and the eyes bright. A low red blood cell count and low blood calcium levels made the hair fine and smooth. Loss of appetite and chronic diarrhea led to weight loss and caused the skin to become pale and translucent.

Even the exhaustion caused by the disease had a romantic appeal.

Russian painter Marie Bashkirtseff, who kept a journal while dying of consumption, wrote, "I cough continually! But, for a wonder, far from making me look ugly, this gives me an air of languor that is very becoming."

Tuberculosis had other favourable associations that contributed to its allure. Before the bacterium that causes TB was discovered, susceptibility to the illness was believed to be inborn, and attractive women from the respectable classes were considered especially vulnerable.

Doomed beauty, indeed

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

LISTEN | Ainsley Hawthorn and Andrew Hawthorn dig into how pandemics through history have influenced clothing and style:

In 1852, French author Alexandre Dumas, fils, wrote of the disease, "It was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after any emotion that was at all sensational and to die before reaching the age of thirty."

Tuberculosis was an affliction of sensitive and passionate souls, closely connected with glamorous images of doomed beauty and tragic genius. Still, few people were willing to risk a premature wasting death just for esthetics.

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

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

They ate arsenic wafers to clarify and whiten their skin. If the arsenic failed to produce the desired effect, they applied lead foundation for 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 willowy silhouette.

Tuberculosis fell out of fashion at the end of the 19th century when it became clear that the disease was contagious and, as a result, it came to be seen as pestilential rather than aspirational.

Consumptive beauty standards, though, live on in unhealthy ways: our idealization of impossible thinness, our fascination with wasted celebrities, and a lust for fair skin.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now