Have you ever heard of tuberculosis? Let me jog your memory. Tuberculosis, also known as TB today, is a bacteria that is spread through the air by someone coughing, sneezing, or....spitting (yuck). TB begins mildly enough, common symptoms include cough, fever, night sweats, and weight loss and could remain mild for many months. This, of course, leads to delays in awareness knowing you're sick which delays treatment and means you're out in the world infecting more people. This will later lead to more severe chest pain and a prolonged cough producing...sputum, and coughing up blood. Throughout the disease it attacks the lungs and also damages other organs, until victims finally waste away. During the 1800s TB began to reach epidemic levels throughout Europe, at this time it was known as "consumption". Long story short, it isn't pretty...unless you're a fashionista.
Why mention fashion? Well, TB had a long history at the forefront of culture in the Victorian age. As we know, the Victorians could get a little...morbid. So, it is no surprise that they romanticized this slow, all-consuming disease that paled the victim and rouged their cheeks and lips.
Carolyn Day noticed the importance of TB in Victorian fashion so much she literally wrote the book on it, "Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease. “Between 1780 and 1850, there is an increasing aestheticization of tuberculosis that becomes entwined with feminine beauty.” Day surmises that TB, or consumption, was adopted into Victorian fashion because it "enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women.” The thinness, rosy lips and cheeks, pale skin, and the overall appearance of delicacy. Thus, the popular way to do your make-up was to lighten your skin, redden your lips and color your cheeks pink.
TB didn't just influence makeup and what was currently considered in-vogue appearance wise, it also changed what women wore. For example, tight corsets with voluminous skirts especially made to emphasize how waifish women's waists were (try saying that 3x fast).
But in the later 1800s, germ theory came to the forefront and the way TB was viewed was changing...and so was the fashion. In fact, in America and Europe alike many of the campaigns aimed at reducing disease were targeted to women's fashion. Doctors went as far as to decry long, trailing skirts as spreaders of the disease. Medical professional warned that voluminous skirts, so recently in fashion, were capable of sweeping up germs on the street and bringing the disease into the home. So, the voluminous skirts of the earlier half of the century began falling out of favor. That wasn't all that was lost - corsets also fell out of favor because of their restrictive nature and the idea that they could hamper blood circulation.
We even see a few, lingering effects of TB fashion today. A common way to cure or improve health was to sunbathe for a few hours a week, which lead to being tan to being in-vogue. Additionally, after women lost their trailing skirts and hemlines were raised, shoes became much more of a fashion statement since they were almost always visible.
And so ends the abridged version of how tuberculosis influenced American and European fashion...even to today!
The above image is liscensed under Public Domain.