Most modern women are familiar with the old adage beauty is pain. And while contemporary beauty practices are arguably somewhat tortuous, few have experienced the reality of this phrase quite like the Victorians. Along with corsets and highly toxic makeup, they followed a beauty regimen largely inspired by the symptoms of Tuberculosis. In fact, many romantic authors of the time saw TB as a desirable affliction. Notorious poet Lord Byron is quoted as having said, “I should like, I think, to die of consumption. Because then all the women would say ‘See that poor Byron – how interesting he looks in dying.’” (1)
Tuberculosis went by many names during its peak in the 18th century, including consumption, the white plague, and the robber of youth. Still a major problem in developing countries today, TB is caused by the infectious bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The disease is transmitted by airborne respiratory droplets, however during the Victorian age its spread was attributed to miasma, or bad air. From 1851 to 1910, the disease killed 4 million people in England and Wales alone, with more than half between the ages of 20 to 24. (1,2)
The various symptoms of TB are responsible for its foray into the fashion world; side effects included weakness, pallor, rosy cheeks, dilated eyes, and weight loss. Many of these, particularly narrow waists, pale skin, and fragility, corresponded to Victorian ideas of feminine beauty. As it disproportionately affected the young, TB also became associated with youth and innocence. Many women, primarily the wealthy, began to emulate the effects of the disease and the TB look grew in popularity (3). Even the artist community could not escape the allure of tuberculosis, believing it bestowed grace and sensitivity to it’s victims. Many of the greatest romantic authors either had TB themselves or wrote extensively about it, including Keats, Shelley, Poe, Bronte, and Chekov. Alexandre Dumas ironically noted:
“… it was the fashion to suffer from the lungs; everybody was consumptive, poets especially; it was good form to spit blood after each emotion that was at all sensational, and to die before the age of thirty…” (1).
Tuberculosis also found it’s way into Victorian folklore, and helped disseminate tales and superstitions of vampires. The pale skin, sunken eyes, and chronic coughing of blood made TB’s victims resemble vampires. Similar to the hysteria seen in the Salem witch trials, vampire scares such as The Great New England Vampire Panic are thought to be caused by misunderstanding of the disease.
The isolation of the tuberculosis bacteria in 1882 by Richard Koch, along with advancements in germ theory, detracted from TB’s popularity among the rich and fashionable. Eventually public opinion of the disease shifted to that of an affliction of the poor. And indeed the working class man, living in poverty, malnutrition and crowded conditions, felt the brunt of the TB epidemic far more acutely than the wealthy. Despite its fall from favor, TB still had some lasting effects on modern fashion ideals. The long, voluminous skirts once popular with women were now considered harbingers of disease, paving the way for shorter, contemporary hemlines. The long beards and extravagant mustaches worn by men in the 19th century were also deemed unsanitary and gave way to sterile, clean shaven faces. Even tanning has its roots in tuberculosis; doctors would often prescribe sunbathing as a treatment to their wealthy patients (3).