Consumptive Chic: When Tuberculosis was the Height of Fashion
During the late 18th century the physical effects of tuberculosis became the ideals of beauty for the fashionable woman.
The idea of disease as fashionable, or at least as something to be emulated, remains a familiar one: think of the heroin chic of the 1990s or the underground Pro Ana movement, which glorifies anorexia. The idea, however, that tuberculosis – a disease characterised by wasting, diarrhoea, coughing and the spitting of blood – could enhance its victim’s beauty is less relatable. Yet, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, cultural ideas about beauty intertwined with the reality of tuberculosis (known as consumption or phthisis), allowing the ravages of the illness to be seen as markers of beauty. Tuberculosis became the site of a battle between professional and popular ideologies of disease – a conflict that played out both in beauty practices and dress.
During the 18th century, diseases such as melancholia, gout and tuberculosis became associated with the upper echelons of society. Physicians argued that there was a relationship between certain illnesses and the sensibilities of the fashionable elite. The middle and upper classes were believed to have more highly refined nervous systems and, as a consequence, a greater share of sensibility (the ability of the nervous system to accept sensations and convey the body’s will). This made them susceptible to certain illnesses and there was a growing concern that the lifestyles and nervous systems of these groups were creating a scourge of ill health among them. As one physician suggested, the ‘great and opulent’ were subject to the whims of fashion ‘in their choice of diseases’. The statesman and essayist Sir William Temple lamented the faddish nature of certain diseases in 1809, likening the trends for illness and their treatments as being ‘very much seen or heard of at one season, disappearing in another’. Others complained of the growing popularity of nervous disorders, dubbed in 1799 ‘a modern invention’.