An Invisible Disease

Annabel Stafford writes:

Fashion can be weird, but for a few decades in the middle of the 19th century it went completely nuts. All the cool kids wanted consumption—a disease that liquidises your lungs and drowns you in blood, or else causes your organs to fail. They painted their faces white, rouged their cheeks and penciled on veins to mimic the hectic flush of a constant low-grade temperature. They tightened their corsets until their chests hollowed out and their shoulders stuck out like a skinny bird’s wings. And according to microbiologist-turned-historian Carolyn Day who details the surreal trend in her book Consumptive Chic, even doctors said it made you better looking.

Day says the strange trend was a way of dealing with a death sentence. In the absence of a cure, consumption became something only those with a certain disposition—marked by beauty, sensitivity and genius—could catch. ‘So, if you are predisposed to the illness and you go from the hot crowded ballroom to your cold carriage: consumption. If you have a tragic love affair: consumption. If you read the wrong thing: consumption.’

Among the rich, anyway. Among the poor, it was ‘treated as a different disease’, a sign of vice and hard living. Then came the death of the famous Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis, the inspiration behind La Traviata and La Boheme. Once consumption was linked to prostitution and poverty, Day says, its fashion moment was over. The discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes the disease, made it even more unfashionable. And any residual link to beauty or genius was completely broken when—with the help of antibiotics and public health measures—the disease was eradicated among the rich.

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