Tuberculosis is a serious disease. Today, it can be partly prevented by vaccine. Those who catch the disease can be treated by a medical professional (who will most likely prescribe antibiotics that will kill the bacterial disease.) It may sound strange, but tuberculosis actually shaped Victorian fashion.
Tuberculosis used to be called “consumption”. The word “consumption” was used to describe the action of the body wasting away. Tuberculosis typically affected the lungs, but the bacteria could spread to other parts of the body. It was a highly contagious disease that was among the most common causes of death throughout the 19th century.
People who caught tuberculosis slowly wasted away. They lost weight and became thin and very pale. One of the symptoms of the disease was a low-grade fever which caused people to have sparkling or dilated eyes, rosy cheeks, and red lips. The disease caused a person’s hair to be very fine and silky.
In short, the Victorians found that women who had tuberculosis became very attractive. (Some believed that the prettier a woman was – the more likely she was to die from the disease.) This caused healthy women to try and make themselves look as though they were suffering from tuberculosis. Middle and upper-class women started using cosmetics to lighten their skin, to make their lips redder, and to color their cheeks pink.
At the time, it was known that tuberculosis was contagious, but doctors did not yet understand exactly how it was spread. The prevailing view among doctors was something called “germ theory”. The doctors believed that tuberculosis was being spread by the long, trailing, skirts that women wore.
Those skirts, they thought, were picking up germs on the street and bringing the tuberculosis disease into the home. This belief eventually caused long, flowing, trailing skirts to go out of fashion. They were replaced by slimmer dresses that no longer had a train.
Tuberculosis also changed how corsets were made. At the time, corsets were rigid and heavily boned. It was believed that the structure of those corsets exacerbated tuberculosis by limiting the movement of the lungs and the circulation of the blood. They were replaced by “Health corsets” that were made with elastic fabric.
It should be noted that people who died of tuberculosis were in pain, had terrible coughs, and may have choked to death on their own blood. Many people who had tuberculosis were sent to sanatoriums (and died there). The reality of tuberculosis did not deter the upper and middle-class Victorians from romanticizing it (and trying to mimic the aesthetically pleasing symptoms).
Image by CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange on Flickr.
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