As Hollywood continues to impress upon us even today, the most beautiful and glamorous thing a woman can do is drop dead—and never was this more true than in the Victorian age, when tuberculosis (then known as consumption) raged.
Emily Mullin at Smithsonian.com interviewed Carolyn Day, an assistant professor at Furman University and author of the forthcoming Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease. According to Day, “Between 1780 and 1850, there is an increasing aestheticization of tuberculosis that becomes entwined with feminine beauty.”
The disease, Day argues, had a significant impact on early 19th century British fashion and perceptions of beauty, because “tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women” at that time—paleness, thinness, and the red lips, cheeks, and sparkling eyes now understood to be caused by a frequent low-grade fever.
This perceived attractiveness was not just enhanced by consumption; some believed that the prettier you were, the more likely you were to succumb in the first place. From Smithsonian.com:
During that time, consumption was thought to be caused by hereditary susceptibility and miasmas, or “bad airs,” in the environment. Among the upper class, one of the ways people judged a woman’s predisposition to tuberculosis was by her attractiveness, Days says. “That’s because tuberculosis enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women,” she explains, such as the thinness and pale skin that result from weight loss and the lack of appetite caused by the disease.
The 1909 book Tuberculosis: A Treatise by American Authors on Its Etiology, Pathology, Frequency, Semeiology, Diagnosis, Prognosis, Prevention, and Treatment confirms this notion, with the authors noting: “A considerable number of patients have, and have had for years previous to their sickness, a delicate, transparent skin, as well as fine, silky hair.”
Rather than creating an aversion to these qualities, Day posits that the disease inspired people to “physically emulate the illness” with tight corsets, voluminous skirts to emphasize the results of said corsets, and makeup to lighten skin and redden lips and cheeks.
Eventually, when germ theory emerged in the late 1800s and Robert Koch isolated the bacteria causing tuberculosis, dying in a puddle of coughed-up blood likely started to seem a bit less glamorous and public health campaigns targeted these constrictive corsets, as well as long skirts (thought to sweep in germs and literal garbage from the street), for the spread of the disease.
Read the full article here.
Painting by Richard Tennant Cooper, via Wellcome Library, London.