Corsets, Beards, and Bustles: How Tuberculosis shaped Victorian fashion

Updated: Aug 10, 2021

Do you ever wonder why fashion changes? Clearly it does, but the whys of it have always escaped me.

As a history fanatic and author, I'm desperate to start working on a series I've been toying around with for the past couple of years, Wrecked. It's the perfect culmination of romance, history, adventure, survival... everything I love. When I read the following article, I was in awe at the intricacies and happenings of history that so few people (including myself) ever realize are tied into the fabric of all of our lives. One nuance or word or motion can change the course of history, social norms, fashion, science, the world as a whole--the list goes on. All of that being said, as wide-spread as Tuberculosis has been since the first prehistoric human remains were found in Egyptian mummies dating 3000–2400 BC., TB didn't start needling its way into urban culture so much until the 1800s and when it did, it changed fashion in a BIG way.

An interesting, summarized history of tuberculosis:

  • Before the Industrial Revolution, TB had been connected to vampires.

  • By the mid-1800s, tuberculosis had reached epidemic levels in Europe and the United States.

  • Due to its variety of symptoms, it wasn't considered a single disease until the 1820s and in 1839 it was finally given it's name, tuberculosis.

  • The disease, now known to be highly infectious, attacks the lungs and damages other organs.

  • In 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had discovered and isolated the bacteria that cause the disease.

  • During the Victorian Era that society started to change in order to cut down on the spread of the disease, thus influencing trends for decades to come.

Corsets, beards, and bustles. Here are a few blips from a Smithsonian article I found absolutely fascinating:

"Before the advent of antibiotics, its victims slowly wasted away, becoming pale and thin before finally dying of what was then known as consumption. The Victorians romanticized the disease and the effects it caused in the gradual build to death. For decades, many beauty standards emulated or highlighted these effects. And as scientists gained greater understanding of the disease and how it was spread, the disease continued to keep its hold on fashion."

"Among the upper class, one of the ways people judged a woman’s predisposition to tuberculosis was by her attractiveness. Tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women, such as the thinness and pale skin that result from weight loss and the lack of appetite caused by the disease. Sparkling or dilated eyes, rosy cheeks and red lips were also common in tuberculosis patients—characteristics now known to be caused by frequent low-grade fever."

“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.

"The second half of the 19th century ushered in a radically transformed understanding of tuberculosis. By then, germ theory had emerged. This is the idea that microscopic organisms cause certain diseases. Doctors began to decry long, trailing skirts as culprits of disease. These skirts, physicians said, were responsible for sweeping up germs on the street and bringing disease into the home. Corsets, too, came under attack, as they were believed to exacerbate tuberculosis by limiting the movement of the lungs and circulation of the blood. “Health corsets” made with elastic fabric were introduced as a way to alleviate pressure on the ribs caused by the heavily boned corsets of the Victorian era.

(Fact and quote from Carolyn Day, an assistant professor of history at Furman University in South Carolina and author of the forthcoming book Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease, which explores how tuberculosis impacted early 19th century British fashion and perceptions of beauty.)

You can read the Smithsonian's article here.

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