Fascinated by Victorian Fashion Trends? Thank Tuberculosis!

Victorian Era Women’s Clothing

Current events have always influenced the way people dress, style their hair, and apply their makeup. The Victorian era (1837–1901) was unique, though, because one of the biggest fashion influences was a life-threatening illness: Tuberculosis

That’s right, the infectious lung disease — which spread like wildfire throughout Europe and the United States during the mid-1800s — played a significant role in the fashion trends at the time, as well as for decades after the fact.

Victorian Fashion and Tuberculosis

According to an article published by Smithsonian Magazine, Victorians romanticized tuberculosis and the way it altered one’s appearance.

Carolyn Day, an associate professor in history at Furman University in South Carolina who was interviewed for the article, explained that tuberculosis enhanced the traits that were already seen as symbols of beauty. This includes traits like thinness and pale skin, as well as typical signs of a low-grade fever: dilated eyes, pink cheeks, and red lips.

Painting ‘The Sick Child’ by Edvard Munch, 1885–86, depicts the illness of his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when Edvard was 14; his mother too died of the disease.
A sickly young woman sits covered up on a balcony; death (a ghostly skeleton clutching a scythe and an hourglass) is standing next to her; representing tuberculosis. Watercolor by R. Cooper, ca. 1912. Credit: Wellcome Collection

During the Victorian era, fashion and beauty trends changed to accentuate or emulate these coveted traits.

For example, pointed corsets and wide skirts came on the scene in the mid-1800s to create and/or show off small waists. Middle and upper-class women also used makeup to lighten their skin, make their cheeks pink, and paint their lips red.

Germ Theory vs. Fashion

During the second half of the 1800s and the early 1900s, new scientific discoveries helped to control the spread of tuberculosis.

In 1882, for example, Robert Koch declared his discovery and isolation of the bacteria responsible for the disease. Germ theory — the idea that many diseases are caused by microscopic organisms — emerged at this time as well. 

In an attempt to minimize the spread of tuberculosis and improve public health, physicians and other experts worked hard to change the fashion trends of the time. They claimed that women’s long skirts contributed to the spread of the germs that caused tuberculosis because they swept germs off of the street and into their houses.

‘The Trailing Skirt – Death Loves a Shining Mark.’ American satirical cartoon featuring the Grim Reaper following a maid brushing off a fashionable trailing skirt. The skirt, hung on a rack, is shown as a carrier of germs and microbes, including those causing typhoid fever, consumption, influenza. First published in Puck, August 8, 1900.

In response to this news, long skirts fell out of fashion, and gowns became shorter. Because women’s shoes were now visible, they started to pay more attention to shoe colors and styles.

Medical professionals also took on corsets, saying that they limited lung movement and blood circulation because of how tightly they squeezed the torso.

When women refused to give up their corsets altogether, a new version known as a “health corset” or “good sense corset” arrived on the scene. These corsets were made from elastic fabric and helped to reduce pressure on the ribs.

Men Were No Exception

Women’s fashion was more heavily influenced by the tuberculosis epidemic and the subsequent research into its spread. However, men’s fashion also had to change in response to the latest scientific discoveries. 

During the Victorian era, many men grew long beards and sported impressive mustaches and sideburns.

These trends likely started thanks to British soldiers, who grew facial hair to stay warm during the Crimean War. In the U.S., the prevalence of facial hair stemmed from the fact that razors were hard to use and unsafe because they often weren’t cleaned properly.    

As more research was conducted into the spread of tuberculosis and other illnesses, men were soon told to part with their facial hair in the name of health.

In an essay published in 1916, a doctor named Edwin F. Bowers stated that the number of bacteria and noxious germs in the “Amazonian jungles of a well-whiskered face… must be legion.”

Bowers went on to say that a host of illnesses, including tuberculosis, whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, and scarlet fever, were all “undoubtedly transmitted via the whisker route.”

In response to the news about beards contributing to the spread of disease, many men chose to shave off their beards. They started to don more serious, understated clothing around the same time, too.

Tuberculosis-Inspired Trends of Today

Some of the tuberculosis-inspired trends of the Victorian era have fallen out of favor over the years.

Women no longer wear bone corsets — or corsets at all — while out and about. However, many of the styles from that time have remained popular in one way or another.

Women are still praised more often than not for having tiny waists, even if they no longer crush their ribs with corsets to achieve them. The importance of wearing shoes that match one’s outfit has remained since the late 1800s, too, as has the popularity of the perfect red lipstick.

Some of today’s fringe fashion trends can also be traced back to the Victorian era. This includes steampunk fashion. Steampunk is a science fiction genre that is inspired by the steam-powered machinery of the 19th century, as well as the fashion and aesthetics of the time.

Do Modern Illnesses Influence Modern Fashion?

When reading about the impact the tuberculosis epidemic had on fashion during the 19th century, it’s easy to draw parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic that has affected people across the globe for the last two years — and is still impacting them today.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, it’s unclear whether it will have any long-lasting effects on people’s fashion choices.

Masks have certainly undergone a makeover since 2020 and have become much more stylish since the pandemic first took hold of the world. They’re now available in all kinds of colors, fabrics, patterns, and more.

Masks could easily become fashion staples in the coming years. Fashion and history scholars might even write articles about them in the future!