5 Historical fashions you didn't know had medical context

By Mary Ellen Lewis, for MDLinx
Published September 12, 2018

Key Takeaways

Fads come and go, but the origins of some of history's most iconic styles may unsettle you. Many of the fashions with which our ancestors chose to decorate themselves weren't just for aesthetic purposes—some were used to cover up, prevent, and even mimic the appearance associated with certain ailments. Here are some recognizable trends that came to be thanks to civilization's most notorious diseases and afflictions.

1. Peruke Wigs (17th–19th Century Europe): Syphilis and Lice

Who doesn't love a man in a big white wig? As it turns out, a little too much love was partial cause for this symbol of 18th-century aristocracy. Made of long, white animal or human hair curled and coiffed in a way that would make a 1980s hair band jealous, an epidemic of syphilis gave these hairpieces their popularity.

Hair loss and unsightly scabs and rashes beleaguered many gentlemen of the time, necessitating coverage that could pass as a fashion statement, according to archeologists.

Contagious head lice and poor hygiene also led to cheaper versions of the peruke to be adopted by the lower classes as time went on. Improved sanitation likely caused these wigs to fall out of favor. However, you can still catch the odd British judge or barrister sporting the peruke as a sign of distinction.

2. White Face Paint (16th–18th Century Europe): Lead poisoning

The old saying "beauty is pain" could not be more true for this next fad.

Prior to the modern beauty standard of sun-kissed skin, there was a linear connection between the paleness of a person's complexion and an increase in their status. This aesthetic requirement for the upper classes was quite literally the death of many women and some men throughout the 18th century, according to University College London.

Although initially used for presentation, lead-based white powder and paint eventually became a way to cover up the sores, scabs, and festering wounds caused by prolonged lead exposure. Hair loss was also common, possibly contributing to the popularity of high hairlines. Slow physical deterioration and the grisly sight of the skin falling off the face led to the discontinuation of this trend.

Fun fact: The Smithsonian notes that Queen Elizabeth I helped popularize the toxic foundation by using it to cover her smallpox scars.

3. "Beak" Masks (17th Century Europe): The Plague

There are few visages more frightening than that of the "plague doctor," which today is often used as a steampunk-style Halloween costume.

But these beak-like masks, often depicted in historical etchings with a trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat, weren't just to scare the neighborhood children. Before medical doctors knew how the disease was spread, it was believed that pandemics like the plague were transmitted through "miasma," or foul smells associated with sick and dying people.

Two centuries after the plague first hit the continent, Charles de Lorme created a mask with a pocket stuffed with anti-miasma potpourri and perfume to protect physicians against the Black Death. A long, waxen coat was also worn for full-body protection. Over time, this image evolved into the ominous, raven-esque figure of lore that today is more symbolic of the grim reaper than medical care.

4. Pointed Corsets (19th Century Europe & the United States): Tuberculosis

Telling someone they look sickly is hardly a way to make friends. However, looking like death was apparently en vogue in the Victorian era.

With consumption, today known as tuberculosis, reaching epidemic proportions, popular culture decided to aestheticize the then-fatal illness, which was associated with pale skin, red lips from fever and the ever-so-coveted deathbed waistline.

As such, women began crushing their rib cages and internal organs with the pointed corsets most modern folk have come to associate with period attire, according to the Smithsonian. Oddly enough, medical doctors soon proved that restricting the airways (combined with the dragging of layered, rarely-washed skirts across the putrid streets of Victorian times) was terrible for one's health and promoted disease.

5. Black Eye Makeup (Ancient Egypt, 4000–3100 BCE): Eye infections and sun protection

No Cleopatra costume is complete without a ring of thick, black eyeliner, but the real Egyptian queen didn't give herself smoky eyes just for appearance's sake. According to National Geographic, a 2010 French study argues that the salts in the kohl used by ancient Egyptians protected against eye infections.

The Egyptians believed that the makeup would magically protect them from disease by pleasing the gods Horus and Ra. It is also thought that the black color helped to repel the hot desert sun.

While an earlier analysis of the makeup's compounds discovered lead, this study found that the doses of the heavy metal were low enough to possibly have beneficial properties. They hypothesize that when the salts come into contact with skin, the body increases production of nitric oxide, which is known to buttress the immune system and fight off disease.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter