Disease is something that human kind has learned to live with as a way of life. We adapt to the social requirements that pandemics thrust upon us in order to survive and come out on the other side stronger, more immune, and more educated (hopefully). As the waves of virus and disease ebb and flow throughout humanity's history, so too does fashion in response. Whether it's for protection, for disguise, or for making a statement, we have always used clothing and accessories to communicate and combat the effects of whatever plague may be upon us at that given time. Below are five ways society has used fashion in response to pandemics throughout history:
Syphilis but Make it Fashion
In 15th Century Europe, as men’s doublets grew shorter a need for some evolution in men’s pants became apparent. What began as a simple pair of hose split down the middle, eventually became a severely decorated piece of clothing that likely hid a scandalous secret. The codpiece began as a plain, baggy piece of fabric that laced up between the hose, meant to cover the goods that the doublet no longer protected. Unsatisfied with its simplicity, men with the means (and the ego) began decorating their front and centers as if to emphasize not only their potency, but also their status and wealth. Men’s crotches began to sparkle and shine…and then grow as padding and stays entered the scene of the rich and fashionable. These units became so large that they were even used as pockets, capable of holding coins, booze, snacks, handkerchiefs (imagine sneezing and the guy next to you casually hands you his crotch napkin…), pistols (safety on, I hope), and the list goes on. More importantly, the popularity of the codpiece rises right alongside the rise of a syphilis epidemic throughout 15th and 16th century Europe. The disease required bandages covered in medicine, spices and herbs to be placed directly upon the infection. The best way to keep the poultices in place without leaking onto other pieces of clothing (or heaven forbid, destroying the man’s reputation) was to house it in a little box and then wrap it like a sparkly little present that other men would envy and women would admire (because the bigger the cod, the bigger the baby maker). Unfortunately while the codpiece’s ornate detail attracted attention, the fact that every man was wearing one allowed those with the disease to hide in plain sight, at least for a few months until the later stage symptoms set in. Being new to Europe and quick to mutate, syphilis would spread and kill an estimated five million people until it waned in the late 1500’s. It’s debated among fashion historians of what came first, the codpiece or the syphilis, but interestingly enough, as the outbreak slowed down, so did the trendiness of accessorizing one’s “cod”.
Two Kings and an STD
The same venereal disease that gave rise to the codpiece also made the wigmaker of the 1500’s an essential worker. Later symptoms of syphilis includes open sores and drastic hair loss, the later being unfortunate because long locks were all the rage amongst men of status. Men began wearing wigs in order to hide their rash-y, balding scalps but the trend really took off when King Louis XIV hired a whole team of wigmakers to hide his premature balding. A few years later, King Charles followed suit. Both kings were suspected to be suffering from syphilis, but that’s not been confirmed. Popularity of long haired wigs grew as more and more men began to suffer from premature hair loss, most likely as a result of the widely spreading syphilis outbreak. Never-mind the dementia, the threat of baldness was too much of an embarrassment risk. Knows as Perukes, these wigs were made big and long in order to cover the rashes and sores that spread around the head, face and neck. They were powdered and perfumed to mask the odor of literal rotting disease. Despite this unpleasant origin, the Peruke became a staple fashion item amongst the aristocracy. Much like the codpiece they became bigger, more ornate, and more expensive.
Fun Fact: the term “Big Wig” comes from this trend and the fact that only the biggest baddies in the room could afford the biggest and baddest wigs.
Despite the cost, they were considered a practical piece by those that could afford them since they allowed the wearer to rid themselves of lice, which was *also* a huge problem at the time. Much like the ancient Egyptians, European aristocrats began shaving their heads and wearing the wigs instead because it was easier to remove lice from a wig than it was to delouse their own heads. Due to this convenient side effect, the wigs stayed in fashion long after the syphilis outbreak until they finally fell out of style during the French Revolution.
Consumption, So Hot Right Now
Tuberculosis is a disease that attacks the lungs and other organs and if untreated, it causes the sufferer to waste away as if being consumed from the inside out. And yet, ever since it reached epidemic levels in the 1800’s, it has been viewed as a “romantic” or even “beautiful” disease. Even today, Tuberculosis is played upon like some tragic third wheel between two lovers determined to be together, the sepia toned start to a seductive vampire’s immortal afterlife, or lest we forget Val Kilmer making pale and sweaty look weirdly sexy as he coughs out the famous “I’m your huckleberry” line. Believed to be a disease for the beautiful, its romanticized image stems from one of its most famous victims: Parisian Courtesan Marie Duplessis, who died from consumption at 23 years young. Marie epitomized victorian beauty ideals with her dark hair, pale skin and waifey frame. As she grew sicker, these features became even more prominent, giving birth to what’s now known as “consumption chic”. As tuberculosis reached epidemic levels in Europe and America, the visible effects of the disease became a coveted look. Women began going to great lengths to achieve the morbid aesthetic. Lead based powders gave the skin a pale, sickly parlor while cheeks and lips were reddened with rouge in order to imitate the feverish pink cheeks and bloodstained lips of those who were actually sick. Belladonna drops in the eyes created large, dilated pupils, imitating the glassy eyes of deathly fever. Already restricting corsets became tighter; women starved themselves to be as thin as the dead and dying.
Basically, those who were not already dying from consumption were literally killing themselves in order to look like they were dying of consumption.
As the epidemic progressed, fortunately so did science, and by the 1880’s, Germ Theory had hit the masses. Robert Koch’s accomplishment of discovering and isolating the germ that causes tuberculosis allowed the general population to understand that the disease was contagious between people and not just a “curse on the already beautiful”. As more understanding of the disease evolved, so did the fashion of the era. Elastic fabric was added to corsets in order to combat the restrictive nature upon the lungs and rib cage (because going without one was obviously out of the question). Trailing skirt hems became frowned upon as they were collectors of germs and a catalyst for disease to spread. Dresses were shortened which then led to women wearing more decorative shoes since they could now be seen (thank you, consumption, for my shoe addiction). Sunshine was prescribed by doctors so the act of tanning began, replacing the former desire to appear as pale as possible. The new knowledge of germs and contagion effected men as well. Until this point facial hair was extremely stylish, but men Bega wearing clean shaven faces as to not carry infectious bacteria in their mustaches and chops. They cut their hair short and wore it close to their heads with oils and gel. Though society was still decades away from any real treatment of the disease, society was really beginning to understand how disease spread and though this knowledge changed many aspects of fashion and style, trends like rouged lips and skinny frames remained a desirable aesthetic, and still is to this day.
The Milliner and the Vaccine
Today, we wear stickers, post online, or decorate our profile pictures with phrases like “I Got Vaccinated”, but in 18th Century France, they wore hats to announce their vaccination status. Smallpox, while mostly eradicated today, was a disease that completely ravaged the world for literal centuries. It was painful, disfiguring, deadly, and extremely contagious. However, by the 18th century, it was completely preventable. While inoculation had become a normal thing in Asia and the Middle East, it wasn’t until the early 1700’s that western civilization began to consider it. Mary Wortly Montague brought the practice back with her to London from Constantinople and began using her status as an Ambassador of Turkey as a platform to get the rest of European society on board. It took decades, but by the 1770’s, most of Europe was in agreement that vaccination was the best way to combat the disease, as well as others. It was a messy process though, and done wrong could be more detrimental than good, poor inoculation resulting in contraction of the disease and often times, death. It was risky, and even though most of the world at the time had accepted the risk in an effort to end the disease, the country of France was hard pressed to be convinced that they outweighed the cost. Smallpox inoculation was even banned for nearly five years in the country because of an outbreak in the 1760’s that was linked to poor inoculation practices. This refusal of progress would eventually cost the country its king. In May of 1774 King Louis XV died after a painful two weeks battle with Smallpox. The very public and excruciating death of his predecessor was enough to convince the new king, Louis XVI, to accept the vaccination. He and his two younger brothers were inoculated three weeks after the death of their father, ensuring the remaining royal line would be immune to the same fate. The vaccinations were a success and the hearts and minds of the French were changed overnight. Seeing a great financial opportunity, hat makers created a commemorative piece that would represent the wearers fight against the Smallpox disease. Dubbed the pouf à l’inoculation, the headdress was worn just at the top of a woman’s very large wig, much like the hats that were trendy at the time, only this one was chalk full of symbolism: the serpent of Asclepius, which is the ancient symbol of medicine, a club to represent conquest, a rising sun to represent the king himself, and an olive branch to represent the sense of peace that can come from inoculation. Unfortunately, no images of the hat have survived the centuries, however there is one record of a hat trimmed in white ribbon with red spots, which is referred to as the ribbon à l’inoculation, which is believed to be in reference to the red pustules that smallpox causes on the skin.
Because nothing says fashion like pustules.
Much like the “I got Vaccinated” banners we decorate our profile pictures with, these hats were not made to chastise those who chose not to vaccinate; they were simply meant as a celebration of the royal line of succession’s brave example, as well as to normalize the acceptance of the progressive concept. And these hat makers were marketing geniuses by creating the hat to fit specifically on the pouf, being that only the elite could afford the wigs in the first place. They used the influence of the richest fashionistas in order to not only make inoculation seem normal, but also desirable, fashionable, and cool. It was an absolute “the cool kids are doing it so I should too” mood. Shortly after this, Edward Jenner perfected the Smallpox vaccine and nearly everyone that could get immunity did, whether they could afford to announce their vaccination status with the hat (or the wig that went under it) or not.
Face Masks, from Bubonic to Designer
The other day I was in a Kate Spade store and near the jewelry I noticed a drawer full of face masks. They were reversible, one side colorfully printed in whimsy florals and polka dots and the other printed in a motif made from the signature spade symbol. I had to laugh at myself because I often find myself annoyed that a box of disposable face masks cost $15 at Walgreens, and yet, here I was, ready to drop the same amount on one mask, all because it had the same logo as the majority of my purse collection. I was also reminded of how far we’ve come as far as face masks and our reliance on them to protect us from disease.
Face masks have a long history, and the most iconic image of them would have to be the foreboding image of the plague doctor from the 17th century. Covered from head to toe in black fabrics and leather, the physicians battling the black plague wore masks with beaked noses that they filled with a concoction of herbs and spices. Since Germ Theory didn’t exist yet, the theory behind this was that the combination of the shape and size of the beak and the mixture of herbs would filter the disease infected air and prevent the wearer from contracting the deadly plague. While the perfume stuffed masks didn’t actually work in preventing the spread of the disease, the image has stuck around through the centuries, becoming an iconic look in Italian art, festivals, and costumes. As humanity came back from the devastating effects of the black plague, more pandemics were on the way. The Flu pandemic of 1918 brought masks back into the forefront of society. While western cultures rejected them (big surprise), Japanese and Chinese countries embraced them in an effort to stamp out the Flu, and then continued to wear them over the next few decades until the flu vaccine became widely available in the 1970’s, however, the face mask has become a staple wardrobe item in Japanese culture as a form of politeness and social etiquette, and because of their every day use, it is not uncommon to see masks that compliment or accessorize an entire outfit.
Now, nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, face masks are more than protection, they’re an accessory. Made from colorful prints and fun patterns, they sit at the entrance and checkout stand at nearly every store. Despite the diversity and availability, western culture still continues to reject the use of them, so I can’t help but wonder if the fact that they’ve hit the fashion week runways is reminiscent of the pouf à l’inoculation? If the hottest couture designers of New York Fashion Week are sending their models down the runway in face masks, it makes them desirable and cool to wear. Over the last year, thousands of retailers have launched face mask lines and it has become a huge money making industry. The Maskie launched in 2020, offering an adorable mask that sits comfortable on your face and wraps around your wrist like a scrunchie when not being used. Makers and sewers flooded the pages of Etsy with stylish prints and digital patterns to make your own. Burberry and Collina Strada began selling masks made from excess fabrics. Louis Vuitton created a shield that not only changes from clear to dark in the sunlight, but also flips up into a visor hat which sells for a whopping $950. Leave it to the good old LV to sell a mask that costs as much as an iPhone. Like them or love them, the stylish face masks of today are definitely a far cry from the deathly beaked image of the black plague.
Pandemics are wild and scary, and they effect more than just the way we interact with each other. Fashion flows with the zeitgeist, adapting to the mood and universal needs of the masses, and a world wide pandemic is one hell of a driving force. They’ve effected the way we wear clothes and the reasons we wear them for centuries, and they will continue to do so. As we move forward through and out of the current crisis, watch what fashion does and how it responds to the new way of life on the other side. It’s already happening and not only with the mask accessories; casual Friday has become casual every day. Structured pieces made from knit fabrics were all over high fashion runways this year. Leggings are back. Bright, jewel tone colors counteract the depressed mood of society and loose drapery is a dominating silhouette. I can’t help but wonder if this comfy, cozy, “Covid Chic” is here to stay, or in an attempt to leave Covid in the past, will we run back to tailored pieces, body con, and *actually* wearing pants to our meetings? Only time will tell, but in the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the comfy knits and sweatpants for as long as I can.
Blakemore, Erin. “Why Plague Doctors Wore Those Strange Beaked Masks.” History, National Geographic, 3 May 2021, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/plague-doctors-beaked-masks-coronavirus.
Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. “How Fashion Helped Defeat 18TH-CENTURY ANTI-VAXXERS.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 21 Jan. 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/01/how-fashion-defeated-the-18th-century-anti-vaxxers/384696/.
Dubey, Nimish. “Suits of Sickness: How PANDEMICS Afflicted Fashion over the Centuries.” The Indian Express, 18 May 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/research/coronavirus-pandemics-fashion-history-6412540/.
“History of Smallpox.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 Feb. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html.
Piepenbring, Dan. “A Brief History of the Codpiece, the Personal Protection for Renaissance Equipment.” The New Yorker, 23 May 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/a-brief-history-of-the-codpiece-the-personal-protection-for-renaissance-equipment.
“Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?” Mental Floss, 29 June 2012, https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/31056/why-did-people-wear-powdered-wigs.