5 Historical Fashion Trends Caused By Gross Diseases

Skirts got shorter and shoes became more important because of tuberculosis, codpieces became popular because of syphilis and hats became mainstreamed because of smallpox
5 Historical Fashion Trends Caused By Gross Diseases

Fashion is influenced by all sorts of factors: function, availability, a shocking amount of politics, and for a while there in the 1980s and 1990s, whether you needed to house a small family in your pants. Along those lines, for much of history (through today, if the current athleisure trend is anything to go by), just about every part of our lives was dictated by disease, and that included fashion. It might not be the most desirable topic of conversation at Fashion Week, but those designers owe more to various poxes than they probably realize.

Tuberculosis Killed Floor-Length Skirts

For most of the 19th century, people didn’t know what caused tuberculosis, a disease that kills you so completely that it was known as “consumption.” Leading theories were genetics, breathing in “bad air” and being hot. No, really. In a case of confusing cause with effect, dainty ladies with willowy figures and pouty red lips were thought to be particularly susceptible. (We’ll come back to that.)

Then we figured out what germs were, but failing to connect them with the “bad air” everyone was previously on about, they apparently decided germs live on the ground. Your average Victorian lady Victorianed around in a flowing, floor-length skirt, so they were proclaimed walking harbingers of death, sweeping germs into the home on the hems of their skirts like exceedingly proper smallpox blankets.

Whether or not they were actually onto anything, propriety means nothing if you’re dead, so floor-length skirts died instead, ankle visibility be damned. This had another effect on fashion that seems obvious in hindsight: As hems raised, what your shoes looked like became more important. In short, Carrie Bradshaw exists because her great-great-grandmother was accused of being a superspreader.

Codpieces Became Popular Because of Syphilis

To the modern eye, the purpose of the codpiece seems obvious: to encourage everyone to look at your crotch. And that probably wasn’t not an added bonus. But some historians think they arose from the syphilis epidemic that happened to be plaguing Europe right around the time men started wearing them, about 1500. Treatment at the time consisted of all kinds of messy ointments, and the disease itself wasn’t exactly neat and tidy, so the codpiece was helpful for containing the treatment (and all the bandages needed to keep them from rubbing off) and the symptoms (leaky wang).

It didn’t take long, however, for men who were constantly fighting their lords’ stupid wars to realize that codpieces are also pretty darn helpful for making sure you don’t get stabbed in the dick during battle. Soon, you couldn’t tell who was wearing them for armor and who was wearing them for drippy dong, and their association with syphilis dissipated. That means the historical figure in any given portrait from the codpiece years didn’t necessarily have junk rot, but he did live in a time before antibiotics, so yeah, he probably did.

People Also Wore Powdered Wigs Because of Syphilis — And Lice

Powdered wigs definitely seem like a trend borne out of some kind of desperation, and the fact that they largely coincided with the codpiece era is no coincidence. Another symptom of syphilis is hair loss, which those who could afford it were frantic to hide, lest their patronage of Ye Olde Bunny Ranch be uncovered.

These wigs were very much not the kind you see on Drag Race today. They were often made of horse or goat hair, and shampoo technology has advanced considerably in the intervening centuries — i.e., they were so rank that they had to be covered in perfumed powder. Otherwise, your fitness for public appearance would only get lower. It didn’t fool anybody, so it wasn’t a desirable lewk until Louis XIV decided to adopt it to cover his un-syphilis-related early onset baldness.

Soon, people discovered another, equally gross advantage of wigs: They acted as pretty good lice decoys. Wig-wearers typically shaved their heads for a better fit, so lice infested their wigs rather than their own hair, because one of the grim realities of the past was that just not getting lice wasn’t an option. That meant less itching and the ability to outsource treatment to your local, long-suffering wigmaker. Unfortunately, taxes on hair powder and the Revolutionary slaughter of those who could pay them led to mass retirement of bug rugs.

Smallpox Hats

The pouf à l’inoculation wasn’t a fashion trend driven by the necessity of staying away from germs or stopping your dick goo from rubbing off everywhere but an active public health campaign. At the time, in 1770s France, smallpox vaccination still consisted of injecting yourself with a hospice patient’s bodily fluids, and no matter how successful it had been in other countries, they were understandably wary of that.

Fortunately, Louis XVI — that’s two Louises on from the wig one — decided to man up and set an example. It was such a big deal that Parisian hatmakers all got together to design a special hat, covered with symbols that vaguely told the story of “Yay, royalty cured us,” which is so weird when you think about it. Imagine if we all went around wearing leggings with “Biden Jabbed 2020” across the butt.

But it was the upper class’s entire job to support the king, so they wore the hats, so then everyone wanted the hats. Wearing the hot new hat necessarily meant supporting vaccination, meaning the effort was remarkably effective. Moral of the story: We need to make those “I got my COVID-19 vaccine!” stickers way sexier.

Consumptive Chic

Most diseases are literally not pretty. You end up with oozing sores all over your face and body, you definitely have no time or energy for the gym and some of them make you shit yourself to death. The uncomfortable truth about tuberculosis, though, was that it kind of turned you into a snack, at least by Victorian beauty standards. It gives you porcelain skin, turns your lips and cheeks red, wastes you down to supermodel proportions and even dilates your eyes, which we unconsciously consider attractive because it’s a signal (if not a terribly reliable one) of being horny. It generally gives you a nice, deathly glow.

And by “uncomfortable,” we mean “openly, wholeheartedly embraced.” Previously, wearing obvious makeup was considered whorey, but the most upstanding Victorian ladies began coloring their faces white and their lips and cheeks red and wearing clothes specifically designed to give them a more tuberculos-ish shape. They even, yes, used poisonous eye drops to give them that doe-eyed “inches from death” look. 

If all of this sounds bonkerballs, consider the “heroin chic” trend of the 1990s and the 2020s or, oh, maybe the tanning craze that was started partially by doctors prescribing sunbathing as a cure for tuberculosis, which will no doubt appear in 100 years on lists titled Hilarious Ways Humans Extincted Themselves.

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