A view on past epidemics and how they changed fashion.
- Clothing as protection and prevention
- The plague and fashion
- Spanish flu 1918-1920
- Small pox
- COVID-19 led to work-from-home style
- Wrapping up
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Clothing as protection and prevention
Humankind has a long history of using clothes and accessories to avoid close contact and unnecessary exposure as well as mitigate the risk for infectious diseases. For instance, crinolines served to enforce social distance between men and women. People hiking in the wilderness of Alaska use bells to signal wildlife to “stay away.” This post focuses on examples of clothes designed as protection or prevention of diseases. The impacts of epidemic diseases on fashion are illustrated as well in the discussion of the interrelationship between fashion and epidemic diseases and vice versa.
The plague and fashion
Huge plagues episodes occurred several times in history leading to mass-death with often only 25% of the original population surviving. During the Bubonic plague in the 14th century, doctors wore beak-like masks to as a way to distance themselves from their sick patients. The mask contained aromatic items as they believed that contamination would occur via air. Actually, this type of plague, aka as Black Death, is caused by infected fleas. This means the infection occurred via the skin, not thru mouth or nose. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries plagues, some doctors wore these masks too.
Looking at the plague in Venice, the virus came into town via a merchant vessel. Silk and pearls were favorite imports in addition to spices. It’s pretty scary that an accidentally boarded rat with infected fleas brought the Black Death into the lagoon city. In this example, the connection between fashion and disease switched the cause and effect around as compared to the above discussed case of the doctor’s attire. More on silk kimonos in the course of fhistory.
The lucky survivors of the 14th century’s plague inherited some wealth. Furthermore, wages increased due to more work than available workers. Aristocrats and upper middle class spent more money on expensive clothes made of silk or other luxury fashion items.
As a child I had to wear cutoff tights over my briefs when wearing a skirt or dress in summer to avoid infection of the urinary tract from chilling. My mom made these cutoffs from too short tights. In a similar way, it was long believed that abdominal chilling put people at risk for cholera. Thus, as a preventive measure so-called cholera belts (see figure below) were common. They even belonged to the standard issues in army kits worldwide.
Cholera belts were made from a flat strip of flannel or knitted wool. Typically, they were red, about six inch times six feet(15 cm x 1.83 m). The user twisted the belt around the abdomen and wore it under their shirt. and purported to be a preventive measure
Spanish flu 1918-1920
This extremely deadly influenza broke out during the Great War. A H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin caused this outbreak. The nations at war withhold reports about the flu to keep up morale. On the contrary, in neutral Spain, newspapers covered the flu. Thus, it became known as the Spanish flu. This influenza killed young people and pregnant women at higher rates than adults 65 and older. In one Alaska Native village, the epidemic killed all, but one inhabitant. During this pandemic, cloth masks were worn by nurses, doctors and police in the Lower 48.
Note that the 2009 bird flu – in Germany known as the swine flu – was caused by a novel variety of the H1N1 virus (H1N1pdm09).
While the Victorian Era crinolines were created for moral aspects and indication of social status, the garment reduced the risk of the wearer to catch the era’s smallpox and cholera. On the other hand, due to their width, the crinolines easily could get enlightened when passing an open fire place. This means they increased the risk to burn to death. The corsets of these dresses were also health-adverse to the spine and lung capacity. At the end of the 19th century, huge hats took over the task to ensure social distance between women and man. See the fashion history of hats for more.
Dr. Edward Jenner had researched the hypothesis of local dairy workers that you can’t get smallpox after cowpox. He took cowpox from the milkmaid Sarah Nelmes and applied them with a knife on the arm of James Phipps (8 years old). Later, he repeated the procedure with smallpox. The boy had become immune to smallpox despite he never had them.
Today baby-boomers and gen-X have two about a cent large scars on one of their arms. These scars were caused due to vaccination against smallpox. As a kid, I preferred to cover them with sleeves. I also thought the doctor should have known that there would be scaring. In my opinion, doctors should have made scratches on both arms at same location for a better, more even look. And why on the arm? The butt would be so much better. There is space enough and nobody sees the scars. LOL. Little Nicole’s fashion sense and logic.
COVID-19 let to work-from-home style
Today face masks serve to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Being sheltered for several weeks may lead to overuse of the athleisure trend. Even when you wear the items in rotation with PJs. It’s a capsule wardrobe.
Those who were lucky enough to work from home, developed some work-from-home style with more comfy bottoms. In a zoom, bluejeans, skype, goto or google hangout meeting, you only see chest up, right?
Delays in delivery of parts, for instance zippers or buttons, due to lockdown, might cause a shortage on fall/winter clothes. Recall it’s now when they are made. Spring clothes weren’t sold. Small boutiques may go out of business because they couldn’t sell their trendy spring work clothes and still have to pay the rent for the store. Not to mention that in fall prices for clothes might go up, making it harder for them to buy and sell.
Large scale epidemic events like political events have had always economic impacts. Some epidemics spread because of trade. Humankind always used clothing for thermal comfort, protection from injury and harm, but also to express their societal status and wealth. Maybe COVID-19 will lead to people wearing masks when they have a cold or the flu (like it is common in Asia). Designers may come up with masks that match with clothes. Also gloves could become a Do again to avoid the spread. Face shields could become a Do. What about frames like for glasses, but with some see-thru plastic material that covers the face from eyebrow to chin? Just an idea.
1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 25, 2020.
Byerly C. R. (2010). The U.S. military and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. Public health reports (Washington, D.C. 1974), 125 Suppl 3(Suppl 3), 82–91.
Renbourn, E.T. (1957). The history of the flannel binder and cholera belt. Medical History. 1 (3): 211–225. doi:10.1017/S002572730002128
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