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Victorian corset, pale yellow with black trim

The Unexpected Influence of Tuberculosis in Victorian Fashion


Surprisingly, there was a time in the history of fashion in which the disease had its most decisive influence.

When we talk about fashion, it’s quite possible that we immediately think of the glamorous world of models and designers, of artistic inspiration, runways, and reflectors. In short, it’s a world of the sublime. And perhaps it’s even a modest version of a Mt. Olympus, populated by people, but sharing with the mythical a sense of the legendary and the inaccessible.

Talk of tuberculosis in the same space as fashion might seem a little unbelievable. And yet it was thus. The Victorian era, an era of peace, prosperity and creativity, was also a long season marked by tuberculosis, nearly invincible in the era’s absence of antibiotics.

Painting of Victorian woman laying in hammock

The historian Carolyn Day, currently at Furman University in South Carolina, says that between the last decades of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century, there was a quirky, unexpected meeting between the worlds of tuberculosis and fashion: the disease took on an aesthetic meaning and this, in turn, was associated with feminine beauty.

Some of the salient features of this cultural phenomenon were those of the pale face and the slim body. From this other perspective, effects like a lack of appetite and a characteristic loss of weight began, within certain social circles, to be considered signs of beauty.

Illustration of five women in different Victorian dresses

Fashion, meanwhile, began running in parallel with these changes to the canons of beauty. The cuts and structures of the corset, which had tended toward voluptuousness and an emphasis of the feminine attributes, were made to fit narrower and thinner bodies. Medicine had an inescapable opinion on the subject, as in the specific case of the corset, stressing that its use was frowned upon by doctors of the time. This was because it was believed that by limiting the movement of the lungs and the blood’s circulation, the harmful progress of tuberculosis was actually fomented.

Certainly a surprising chapter in the history of fashion, for a disease that was sometimes linked to fields of creativity, tuberculosis otherwise offered very little by way of glamor.


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