An unexpected look at big epidemics and fashion interrelations

 

Contents
  1. Clothing as protection and prevention
  2. The plague and fashion
  3. Spanish flu 1918-1920
  4. Small pox
  5. COVID-19 led to work-from-home style
  6. Wrapping up
  7. References

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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.

copper engraving of plague doctor attire ca. 1656
Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, circa 1656. From: Wiki Commons

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 infect fleas brought the Black Death into the lagoon city. In this example, there is the connection between fashion and disease switched as compared to the doctor’s attire.

plague victims and how they dressed
A plague scene at right, a man at left holding a torch illuminating part of the scene, ill people at the right. By Marcantonio Raimondi (Italian, Argini (?) ca. 1480–before 1534 Bologna (?)). After Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi) (Italian, Urbino 1483–1520 Rome). Obviously, ill women were not granted any modesty. Engraving ca. 1515–16. From Met Museum Open Source

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.

Cholera

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.

Front and back view of the design of a cholera belt
Front and back view of the design of a cholera belt. From Wiki Commons

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).

Small pox

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.

woman in crinoline and umbrella painting by C. Guys
Woman with a Parasol by Constantin Guys (French, 1802 – 1892) painted 1860–1865 in watercolor over pen and brown ink. The woman walks thru a park in Paris protecting herself from the Sun with a small blue parasol, gloves and bonnet. Around this time the crinoline was at its peak with respect to its width. From: Getty open source

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.

Wrapping up

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.

References

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

This post was featured on Links à la Mode fashion roundup by Independent Fashion Bloggers.

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This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Mr.Rios

    I came for the fashion, but stayed for the intelligence. God, how your science-minded posts enchant us all. Not because you’re a brilliant scientist/climatoligist with breathtaking fashion sense who mesmerizes us all, it is the manner in which you make such educated, fact-laden information and events so easy to understand! Brilliance, beauty, and charisma to spare……Truly a renaissance being in every sense!

  2. Hilda Smith

    Loved this post. Very educational too.

  3. imagesbytdashfield

    I only have the one circle scar on my arm from polio vaccine I believe.

  4. frugalistafashion

    Nicole!
    This post is amazing! Love the it! I am a huge history fan.
    xo Eva

  5. Judy Stewart

    Very interesting column today. Thank you.

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