For centuries now, people have tweaked wardrobes to cope with illness and infections, from headdress to hems to shoes. (Wikimedia Commons)
They might not have the reputations of some designers and tend to populate hospitals rather than catwalks, but pandemics have had a deep impact on fashion and the art of dressing up. Sounds hard to believe? Well, then consider the fact that even as the world struggles to cope with Covid-19, masks have been added to most wardrobes. And gloves seem next on the list. No we are not being flippant. This is not the first time that a disease or illness has influenced the way we dress. And it will not be the last. For centuries now, people have tweaked wardrobes to cope with illness and infections, from headdress to hems to shoes.
Here are a few examples of how illness changed the way we dress
Keep your hair on, it’s syphilis…or get a wig!
Noticed how so many of the gentility in the western world wore those very elaborate wigs, compete with ribbons, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (check any period film or series)? Well, according to many people, while wigs had existed as a means to camouflage baldness in the past, they became extremely popular, when syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), swept across Europe in the late sixteenth century.
Wigs became extremely popular, when syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), swept across Europe in the late sixteenth century.(Wikimedia Commons)
The disease caused open sores, blindness and well, it also caused hair loss. So an elaborate wig (which was also associated with French royalty, thanks to Louis XIII), and was initially known as a “peruke,” was considered an effective way to hide marks of the disease. Problems of hygiene also caused an outbreak of lice in the seventeenth, leading people cut their hair very short indeed. Wigs once again came to the rescue, and were often powdered to counter the smell of what some referred to as “unwanted parasites.”
Painting over the pox
Ever wondered why so many women in the seventeenth century had almost chalk-white faces? Well, of course, being fair was considered good and a symbol of class – a very pale face was considered evidence of never having had to work in the sun (only servants did that in those days). But there is reason to believe that the small pox, which ravaged the world in the late sixteenth century had a role to play in this.
Queen Elizabeth 1 of Britain, was afflicted by the small pox in 1562. (Wikimedia Commons)
The disease left its victims with marks all over their faces, and in many cases, they resorted to using very heavy face paint to cover it. Indeed, the person many credit with making face paint a major fashion, Queen Elizabeth 1 of Britain, was afflicted by the small pox in 1562. She recovered, but her once famously fair skin was covered with scars. Her solution was to use very heavy white powder – a blend of vinegar and lead that many called “Venetian Ceruse.” Of course, with the queen, especially one so renowned for her fashion sense as Elizabeth, using it, the make up became a rage. Ironically, it was also lethal – many consider that the lead in it caused poisoning, and some even believe Elizabeth herself perished because of it.
Putting a mask on the plague
One of the most common masks seen during the famous Carnival of Venice is in the shape of a long beak. It is worn by actors in Italian theatre as well. Its name, however, reveals its sinister roots – its called the mask of the Medico Delle Peste. Literally, it means “the medic of the pest” or even more simply, the plague doctor.
One of the most common masks seen during the famous Carnival of Venice is in the shape of a long beak. (Wikimedia Commons)
The beak is only a part of a very elaborate costume that was designed some say by French doctor Charles de Lorme (famous for treating Louis XIII) in 1619. He designed the costume, which was inspired by a soldier’s armour, to be worn by doctors treating patients of the deadly bubonic plague. The costume comprised a long leather coat covered in wax that went from neck to ankle, but it was the headgear that stood out. Apart from the beak, which was half a foot long, there were also spectacles and a hat made of leather. The beak was not for dramatic effect – it was filled with herbs that many hoped would filter out any poison or vapours in the air (at that time, it was believed that plague was spread by poisons in the air – germs were unknown!).
The costume itself was not very effective but is now a part of Italian culture and is seen in carnivals and even in some period video games (check out the plague doctor in Assassins Creed 2).
Oh, to look fashionably ill!
Can a fatal disease ever be considered desirable? Well, believe it or not, tuberculosis (or “consumption” as it was then known) was just that in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Literature and plays (most notably La Traviata) glamourised the disease whose symptoms — being very thin, being pale, sparkling eyes and red lips — were right in line with the idea of beauty. There was even a theory that it happened to people of a certain calibre and class — the death of poet Keats was cited as an example.
Long dresses with high waists that stressed the thinness of the person wearing them were the rage during the Tubercolosis outbreak. (Wikimedia Commons)
Some believed that tuberculosis was even caused by too much thinking or, well, excessive dancing. “TB was thought to come from too much passion, afflicting the reckless and sensual,” Susan Sontag has written in “Illness as a metaphor.” Given all this, it is not really surprising that a lot of people went out of their way to look as if they suffered from tuberculosis. Long dresses with high waists that stressed the thinness of the person wearing them were the rage. Necklines and backs dipped to display (often) bony shoulders. People painted their faces white and applied lip colour for the “consumption look.” Even the great writer Charlotte Bronte referred to it as a “flattering malady.”
The flu flew away, the masks remained
Wearing masks has been a way of life in Japan, even before the Corona pandemic. In fact, by some estimates, face masks are a multi-million Dollar business in the land of the rising sun, where they are worn by a significant proportion of the population. Indeed, for many, they are a style statement and come with special designs and patterns. However, the roots for the popularity of the face mask lie in the Spanish Flu pandemic which struck Japan in 1918 and left thousands dead.
The roots for the popularity of the face mask in Japan lie in the Spanish Flu pandemic which struck Japan in 1918 and left thousands dead. (Wikimedia Commons)
Even when the pandemic was over, a number of allergies caused by pollen encouraged people to continue using masks. Then came industrialisation and pollution (Tokyo was at one time one of the most polluted cities in the world), and by the time the turn of the century came, the mask was an integral part of Japanese lifestyle, with many even wearing it to hide social awkwardness or to dodge wearing makeup. The western world was puzzled until a few months ago. We reckon it is envious now.
Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners by Lynn M. Thomas
Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease by Carolyn A. Day
Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David
The Queen’s Bed: An intimate history of Elizabeth’s court by Anna Whitlock
Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag