How tuberculosis shaped women’s clothing in the Victorian era
Victorians romanticized death and disease to quite an extent. So much so that Victorians became a kind of “cult of mourning”, a phrase popularized over time and spearheaded by Queen Victoria, who mourned the death of her husband until her own death many years later, long past the requisite year of wearing mourning dress and behaving in mourning.
In the mid-1800s, tuberculosis had reached epidemic levels in Europe and the United States and was causing the untimely death of many young women. The effects tuberculosis had on its sufferers in its gradual build to death became an interesting part of fashion and beauty standards. The aestheticization of tuberculosis became entwined with feminine beauty for decades, which had a lot to do with how tuberculosis enhanced aspects of what Victorians found attractive in women already: pale skin, silky, fine hair, sparkling eyes and reddened lips and cheeks were all symptoms of tuberculosis.
When in 1882 it was discovered that a germ caused tuberculosis, a shift began to happen to women’s fashions to counteract the disease. There was a misguided belief that the long train of voluminous skirts would give something for the bacteria to “stick” to. This caused tailors to lift women’s hemlines a few inches and for many to do away with the train, allowing the skirt to swing just above the ground but not on it.
Victorian corsets also came under fire, as it was believed that the corsets would exacerbate the illness’ effects by limiting movement of the lungs and blood. Because of this misguided belief, “health corsets” were introduced to counteract the negative effects of the Victorian corset. These were made with elastic fiber to alleviate the pressure on the ribs.
While tuberculosis’ physical effects have not continued to affect beauty standards for women, many of its after effects can still be felt. Tanning was often prescribed for tuberculosis, giving rise to the concept of tanning as a “healthy” look, and the lifting of hemlines meant that the style and look of shoes became an increasing focus of women’s fashion.