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Throughout History, Fashion And Epidemics Have Shared A Common Thread

Public Domain
An illustration of crinoline hoop skirts from the 1860s.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, masks are having a bit of a moment. They’ve gone from functional to fashionable to controversial, all in the span of about two months. But it’s not the first time fashion has been tied to an epidemic.

If you believe the memes on social media, hoop skirts in the 1800s were the original “social distancing,” and the heavy, veiled hats from the early 1900s that completely covered one’s head were to prevent contracting the Spanish flu.

“That’s actually to protect you when you’re riding in a car,” clarified Katie Knowles, curator with Colorado State University’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising. She said there are a lot of misconceptions about fashion and the role it played during various epidemics throughout history.

The hoop skirt? That was all about social distancing, but not for health reasons. It was designed to keep men from getting too close to women, who at the time were beginning to go out in the general public more, Knowles said.

“The purpose of the hoop skirt was not any kind of concern about illness,” she said. “It just has that kind of unintended consequence.”

But there are plenty of actual connections between epidemics and the world of fashion and textiles. Some odder than others.

In Europe in the 1500s, men wore hose as the preferred garment on their legs, Knowles said. They also wore a codpiece, a strip of strategically placed fabric that could be laced up to make using the restroom easier.

Credit Titian / Public Domain
Public Domain
"Portrait of Charles V With a Dog" (1533)

But as men began returning from the Americas, in addition to bringing back corn and tobacco, they also brought syphilis.

“Some of the treatments that they were using at the time for syphilis, it could cause staining of the hose,” Knowles said. “And so you start to see padding being used.”

And the padded codpiece was born. As the disease spread, so did the fashion trend, becoming more and more elaborate — using jeweled embellishments and various materials like metal.

“The rise of popularity as a fashion statement correlates with the spread of syphilis as a disease across Europe, and as immunity builds up, it slows down,” Knowles said. “And as it slows down, the padded codpiece falls out of fashion.”

Clothing and textiles have also been instrumental in the spread of disease.

The bubonic plague — also referred to as the "Black Death: — occurred in the 14th century, spreading along the Silk Road trading network through Asia, Africa and Europe. It killed an estimated 50 million people.

“The movement of the people was definitely tied to a global trade system,” Knowles said.

Silk was a relatively new fabric and had become very popular amongst Europeans, she said. The increased demand opened up additional trade routes, introducing the disease to more locations.

But fashion’s role wasn’t always accidental.

“The smallpox episode that most people are referring to was real,” said Elizabeth Fenn, a distinguished professor at the University of Colorado - Boulder. Fenn specializes in Native American history and the history of epidemic disease.

“It took place in 1763,” she said. “In the aftermath of the French and Indian War — sometimes called the Seven Years War — at a place called Fort Pitt, which we now know of as Pittsburgh.”

Following negotiations with British soldiers, the Native Americans asked for a gift as a sign of good faith. A trader named William Trent later wrote of the exchange, stating: “Out of our regard to them, we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. We hope it will have the desired effect.”

Since the disease was already in the area, Fenn says it’s impossible to ascertain if the blankets were indeed the cause. However, smallpox did ravage the native communities around Fort Pitt at the same time the blankets were given.

“What’s interesting is this is the 18th century, this is pre-germ theory,” she said. “This is a century before Robert Koch discovers the Anthrax bacillus under his microscope.”

Even then, people had an intuitive concept of contagion.

Credit Paul Fürst / Public Domain
Public Domain
Engraving of Doctor Schnabel, a plague doctor in Rome circa 1656.

“It’s fair to call it ‘germ warfare,’ or ‘biological warfare,’ although that phrasing would have been anachronistic,” Fenn said. “It’s not what people would have called it at the time. They would have seen smallpox as more like a poison. I would say it’s the earliest fully documented account in American history.”

Going back even further to the 1600s, the “uniform” of plague doctors spoke to an intuitive understanding of epidemiology, Knowles said. Traveling from house to house, the doctors could be identified by their heavy waxed leather coats, long canes and wide-brimmed hats. They also wore a birdlike mask with a long beak.

“Often there was a flower stuck in the beak,” she said. “They thought that bad odors that were in the environment around the disease were what was spreading the disease.”

Today, we are once again working to understand different materials, how they may transmit disease, and how they may help prevent it.

“In general, I think this crisis (will) make people think a lot of things differently,” said Yan Vivian Li. The CSU associate professor is leading the university’s Smart Textiles and Nanotechnology Research Group.

Li, along with grad student Tony Vindell, is conducting tests on a variety of non-woven fabrics, similar to coffee or vacuum-bag filters, from Colorado manufacturers.

The hope is that the materials will be strong and safe enough to be mass-produced in-state to make much-needed PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), like medical gowns. CSU’s textile lab is the only place in the state capable of doing this level of testing.

While textiles have long been kind of an afterthought, Li said they’ve now become one of the most important things in the fight against the novel coronavirus. That could eventually change what we look for in clothing.

Credit John Eisele
CSU Associate Professor Yan Vivian Li.

It would no longer be just about keeping you warm and comfortable, but about keeping you safe and healthy, she said.

This moment in history may be a turning point for manufacturers, Li said, causing them to look at clothing and textiles that do more than just look nice. It’s something she’s already been researching.

“One of the things I’ve been in the past five years developing — https://youtu.be/WSuVjhbEb-I">fabric that changes color when bacteria is detected,” she said.

Li’s already added a new element to her work — looking into creating fabric that changes color when a virus is detected.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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