Tag Archives: heroin chic

Beauty, Fashion, and Architecture: Diseases Change Worlds

Laurie and Debbie say:

Emily Mullin wrote “How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion” for Smithsonian Magazine in 2016. It’s not a big jump to figure out why this article is reappearing now.

Despite the title, Mullin’s article covers not just fashion but also the underlying conceptions of beauty (all in Great Britain and the United States).

“Between 1780 and 1850, there is an increasing aestheticization of tuberculosis that becomes entwined with feminine beauty,” says Carolyn Day, an assistant professor of history at Furman University in South Carolina and author of  … Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty, and Disease, which explores how tuberculosis impacted early 19th century British fashion and perceptions of beauty. …

Among the upper class, one of the ways people judged a woman’s predisposition to tuberculosis was by her attractiveness, Day says. “That’s because tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women,” she explains, such as the thinness and pale skin that result from weight loss and the lack of appetite caused by the disease.

Without having read Day’s book, we’re not completely sure that thinness was such a strong standard of beauty pre-TB, but TB was certainly a factor in fixing the equivalence of being thin and fragile with being beautiful.

Clothing trrends weren’t exempt

“We also begin to see elements in fashion that either highlight symptoms of the disease or physically emulate the illness,” Day says. The height of this so-called consumptive chic came in the mid-1800s, when fashionable pointed corsets showed off low, waifish waists and voluminous skirts further emphasized women’s narrow middles. Middle- and upper-class women also attempted to emulate the consumptive appearance by using makeup to lighten their skin, redden their lips and color their cheeks pink.

Then as now, women in danger of dying will be considered beautiful as long as their dying appearance can be made aesthetic. Women can be socially rewarded for looking like they are dying when they are healthy. We saw this again in the emergence of “heroin chic” in the early 1990s.

For a foray away from personal appearance and fashion into the built environment, listen to the “Body Meets World” segment of the July 24, 2020 episode of On the Media, which uses the fresh-air cure attempts and the tuberculosis sanitarium to provide context for the changes in architecture provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and then speculates on the architectural changes which COVID-19 calls for, to allow for ventilation, social distancing, and alternatives to crowds.

COVID-19 is already affecting our buildings, our streets, and our parks. Because the virus does not have a consistent or beautifying effect on people’s appearance (as tuberculosis did), it seems unlikely to deeply affect general standards of beauty. We can already see how it is affecting fashion–primarily in the way masks are becoming personal statements. From the masks at Black Lives Matter protests saying “I Can’t Breathe” to the fringed and bejeweled masks matching outfits, to solid colors or tiger stripes, we choose the items we use every day to make us feel like ourselves, and to present ourselves to the world. Some high-fashion runway models — whatever form the runway returns in — will sport extreme masks, possibly very wide or very high, and certainly very remarkable.

Plagues have shaped cultures for all of human history: watching this happen is both gruesome and compelling.