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how tuberculosis shaped victorian fashion science

How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Fashion

The deadly disease—and later efforts to control it—influenced trends for decades

Marie Duplessis, French courtesan and Parisian celebrity, was a striking Victorian beauty. In her best-known portrait, by Édouard Viénot, her glossy black hair frames a beautiful, oval face with sparkling eyes and ivory skin. But Duplessis’ fame was short-lived. Like Violetta, the protagonist in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Traviata whose tale Duplessis inspired, Duplessis was afflicted with tuberculosis, which killed her in 1847 at the age of 23.

By the mid-1800s, tuberculosis had reached epidemic levels in Europe and the United States. The disease, now known to be infectious, attacks the lungs and damages other organs. Before the advent of antibiotics, its victims slowly wasted away, becoming pale and thin before finally dying of what was then known as consumption.

The Victorians romanticized the disease and the effects it caused in the gradual build to death. For decades, many beauty standards emulated or highlighted these effects. And as scientists gained greater understanding of the disease and how it was spread, the disease continued to keep its hold on fashion.

“Between 1780 and 1850, there is an increasing aestheticization of tuberculosis that becomes entwined with feminine beauty,” says Carolyn Day, an assistant professor of history at Furman University in South Carolina and author of the forthcoming book Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease, which explores how tuberculosis impacted early 19th century British fashion and perceptions of beauty.

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.” Sparkling or dilated eyes, rosy cheeks and red lips were also common in tuberculosis patients—characteristics now known to be caused by frequent low-grade fever.

“We also begin to see elements in fashion that either highlight symptoms of the disease or physically emulate the illness,” Day says. The height of this so-called consumptive chic came in the mid-1800s, when fashionable pointed corsets showed off low, waifish waists and voluminous skirts further emphasized women’s narrow middles. Middle- and upper-class women also attempted to emulate the consumptive appearance by using makeup to lighten their skin, redden their lips and color their cheeks pink.

The second half of the 19th century ushered in a radically transformed understanding of tuberculosis when, in 1882, Robert Koch announced that he had discovered and isolated the bacteria that cause the disease. By then, germ theory had emerged. This is the idea that microscopic organisms, not miasmas, cause certain diseases. Koch’s discovery helped germ theory gain more legitimacy and convinced physicians and public health experts that tuberculosis was contagious.

Preventing the spread of tuberculosis became the impetus for some of the first large-scale American and European public health campaigns, many of which targeted women’s fashions. Doctors began to decry long, trailing skirts as culprits of disease. These skirts, physicians said, were responsible for sweeping up germs on the street and bringing disease into the home.

Consider the cartoon "The Trailing Skirt: Death Loves a Shining Mark," which appeared in Puck magazine in 1900: The illustration shows a maid shaking off clouds of germs from her lady’s skirt as angelic-looking children stand in the background. Behind the maid looms a skeleton holding a scythe, a symbol of death.

Corsets, too, came under attack, as they were believed to exacerbate tuberculosis by limiting the movement of the lungs and circulation of the blood. “Health corsets” made with elastic fabric were introduced as a way to alleviate pressure on the ribs caused by the heavily boned corsets of the Victorian era.

The lush facial hair of the late 1800s wouldn’t survive public health efforts of the early 1900s. (Library of Congress)

Men’s fashion was also targeted. In the Victorian period, luxuriant beards, sculpted mustaches and extravagant sideburns had been all the rage. The trend can be partly credited to British soldiers who grew facial hair to keep warm during the Crimean War in the 1850s. But facial hair was also popular in the United States where razors were difficult to use and often unsafe, especially when not cleaned properly. But by the 1900s, beards and mustaches themselves were deemed dangerous.

“There is no way of computing the number of bacteria and noxious germs that may lurk in the Amazonian jungles of a well-whiskered face, but their number must be legion,” Edwin F. Bowers, an American doctor known for pioneering reflexology, wrote in a 1916 issue of McClure’s Magazine. “Measles, scarlet fever, diphtheria, tuberculosis, whooping cough, common and uncommon colds, and a host of other infectious diseases can be, and undoubtedly are, transmitted via the whisker route.”

By the time Bowers penned his spirited essay, facial hair had largely disappeared from the faces of American men, especially surgeons and physicians, who adopted the clean-shaven look to be more hygienic when caring for patients.

The Victorian ideal of looking consumptive hasn’t survived to the current century, but tuberculosis has had lingering effects on fashion and beauty trends. Once women’s hemlines rose a few inches at the beginning of the 1900s, for example, shoe styles became an increasingly important part of a woman’s overall look. And around the same time, doctors began prescribing sunbathing as a treatment for TB, giving rise to the modern phenomenon of tanning. 

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ARIA-SA awards event celebrates Italy-Australia research links - News

ARIA-SA awards event celebrates Italy-Australia research links

Flinders Law School will host an event on Tuesday (26 May) to highlight the success of an awards program which has allowed two early career researchers at Flinders to showcase their work and build relationships with researchers in Italy and Europe .

Awards from the Association for Research between Italy and Australia (South Australian Branch) and the Italian Benevolent Fund, Adelaide (ARIA-SA/IBF) allowed Flinders PhD candidates Stefano Bona and David Hobbs to travel and work in Italy in 2014.

Tuesday’s event will see both researchers make presentations about their research at Flinders University.

Flinders has a strong relationship with ARIA-SA/IBF through its Associate Professor Marinella Marmo, who is President of ARIA-SA, and Dr Rodrigo Praino, who is the organisation’s Secretary.

ARIA-SA, which is an association promoting research between Italy and Australia, joined forces with the Italian benevolent Foundation (IBF) in 2014 to offer the awards, which promote academic interaction between Italy and Australia.

They were open to Flinders University post-doctoral and post-graduate fellows of the Faculties of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics, and of Education, Humanities and Law.

Mr Hobbs’ research focussed on creating a unique controller to allow the use of computer games to help children with cerebral palsy develop fine motor skills in their hands, while Mr Bona’s research examines how Italian filmmakers became the first Western filmmakers allowed to make documentaries in China following the signing of ground breaking co-production agreements in 2014.

Mr Bona said the ARIA-SA/IBF award had enabled him to focus more closely on key parts of his project and to rethink them in a more meaningful way.

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“This was a fantastic opportunity, which I hope can be extended to other Flinders post-graduate students in future.”

Mr Hobbs said his award had allowed him to further strengthen an existing relationship with a group of associates in Bologna and to build new relationships in Pisa.

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“It gave me the opportunity to develop collaborative links with a group in Pisa, and to further strengthen that existing relationship, which was in Bologna.”

Associate Professor Marinella Marmo, who is Acting Associate Dean (Research) at Flinders Law School and President of ARIA-SA, said the awards were a fantastic and rare opportunity for Flinders researchers to share research and build collaborations with Italian academics.

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“The partnership with ARIA and IBF attests to the value of research beyond academic circles and shows the importance Flinders University academics place on community outreach.

“The awards were offered to the best candidates through a transparent process that saw the involvement of the Research Committees of Flinders University’s Faculties of Science and Engineering, and of Education, Humanities and Law.”

Further details on Tuesday’s event are below.

Presentation title: “Harnessing technology to improve how children with cerebral palsy use their hands.”

By David Hobbs : Lecturer/PhD Candidate | The Medical Device Research Institute (MDRI) | Faculty of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics | Flinders University

Summary: David Hobbs’ PhD work is in the design, development and trial of an accessible gaming system that enables children with cerebral palsy who have a hand impairment to trial a new form of therapy. His presentation will focus on the system design and outcomes, and the groups he met with in Italy in September last year.

Presentation title: “Looking into cinematic otherness: Italian filmmakers in China and the case of Carlo Lizzani’s La muraglia cinese / Behind the Great Wall (1957)”.

By Stefano Bona : PhD Candidate | School of Humanities and Creative Arts | Flinders University

Summary: In 2014, Italy and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed an important film co-production agreement. What happened before it? And, more generally, how did western directors experience the film production of films in an independent China after its foundation in 1949? Italian filmmakers were among the first to have such an opportunity, with Carlo Lizzani being the first western director allowed to shoot a feature documentary in the PRC in as early as 1956. This presentation will give an in-depth account of his work, based on data collected through archival research in Italy in 2014.

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The renowned CLC (Council for Licensed Conveyancers) regulates the licensed conveyancers. CLC is incidentally also, the awarding authority for the licensed conveyancer qualifications. The CLC had been founded for introducing competition in the conveyancing business and breaking monopoly of the solicitors. It came up with the vision of encouraging innovation and supporting the professionals. CLC is known to regulate the development of prosperous businesses.

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Several licensed conveyancers appreciate the fact they can pursue their education, while working and so they avoid taking student loans that are usually required for full time study. You may opt for a reputed distance learning program or even a reliable part-time course at an affiliated and accredited college. Both the courses are known to combine fast-paced learning along with practical training.

It is mandatory for students to complete minimum 1 year full-time conveyancing, submit relevant written assignments and also, take exams relating to every aspect of property law. Usually students complete the study course within 2 years, but often some students stretch it to more than 3 to 4 years, while pursuing a job and studies together.

You would require a minimum of four GCSE pass certificates at Grades A to C or an equivalent, with English language as one of them. If you are aged above 18 years and are employed in the office of any licensed solicitor or conveyancer, you get an opportunity to pursue studies in this line. Even if you are aged 25 and above there is scope for you to pursue this career. If you possess some legal qualifications like a law degree, you would be exempted from all or part of the academic prerequisites for the licensed conveyancer qualifications.

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