Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion, and Disease

Day, Carolyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History

  • Date of entry: Mar-13-2018
  • Last revised: Mar-13-2018


From the late 18th to mid-19th centuries a peculiar trend swept through European fashion. Through couture and cosmetics, this vogue emulated the physical ravages of a much-feared disease, tuberculosis, aestheticizing its symptoms as enviable qualities of physical beauty. Pale skin, stooped posture, white teeth, an emaciated figure, and a white complexion that evinced delicate blue veins were lauded by the era’s posh fashion journals. Carolyn A. Day aptly terms this craze a “tubercular moment,” a cultural phenomenon that elevated the grim realities of physical illness to a plane of desirable beauty. Medical discourses promoting the fragility and refinement of the “sensible” body were inspired by romanticized notions of morbidity, suffering, and illness. These discourses coincided with the the ideologies of Romanticism, a philosophical movement that was popularly understood to be a counter-discourse to the Enlightenment through its emphasis on emotion and imagination. Day cites the English poet, John Keats, whose legacy emphatically contributed to the cult of sensibility, as he embodied a living example of the refined tubercular body endowed with artistic genius but doomed to illness. The male artist was an example of a body too sensitive, too delicate to endure earthly life, but one whose intellect left an indelible imprint on culture.  

The romanticized construction of tuberculosis, however, waned in the 1830s and 1840s due to dominant Victorian views that emphasized the inherent biological weakness of the female body. This shift in rationalizing consumption was the direct result of understanding women as burdened with a surfeit of sensibility. By contrast, consumption was understood differently to be an emasculating illness that denoted male weakness and was therefore no longer popularly considered to be a portent of gifted creativity. During this period, a number of women’s fashions dictated the tastes of the middle and upper classes. Corsets, cosmetics, and the gossamer neoclassical style of dress were used to emulate the frail frames, drooping postures, narrow torsos, and pale complexions of the consumptive body. Thin fabrics, sandals, and hair pieces also contributed to styling the ‘gorgeously’ spectral image of the tubercular body. Dresses were contrived to feature the bony wing-like shoulder blades of the consumptive back, emphasizing an emaciated frame. Physicians and cultural pundits condemned the trappings of this fashionable dress because they were thought to impose health risks. Tight corsets, for example, were considered to harmfully compress the lungs, while diaphanous dresses and sandals exposed women to cold weather. Despite the stentorian warnings of physicians, the tubercular wardrobe continued to house articles that were thought to excite tuberculosis.  

By the 1850s, public health and sanitary reforms reshaped cultural discourses that associated tuberculosis with beauty. Tuberculosis was gradually viewed as a pernicious biological force that needed to be controlled. As a result, the Victorian model of womanhood—the weak and susceptible female body—gave way to a model of health and strength. Literature, as Day points out, contributed significantly to altering the consumptive chic discourse and the link between tuberculosis and ideal femininity. She references Alexandre Dumas fils, whose influential novel, La Dame aux Camélias, presents redemption for moral transgressions through tubercular suffering. Through popular literature, tuberculosis was gradually supplanted from the sphere of upper-class women and placed in association with ‘fallen’ women, an unsavory association that led the genteel public to change perspective. Literary influence was important, but the increased visibility of consumption in the lower classes was likely the most visceral reality that forced upper classes to distance themselves from fashions that beautified the illness.


Day traces the complexly tangled social, cultural, and medical discourses that gave rise to these fashion trends, asking challenging questions, such as what would inspire largely educated classes to respond to illness through the channels of fashion? Why was fashion and its mercurial trends uniquely suited to address medical anxieties? Why glamorize the symptoms of a deadly disease? The book’s analysis digs into an array of archival records, including medical treatises, periodicals, and graphic content, to answer these questions. Readers may be reminded of the Alexander McQueen show, “Widows of Culloden” (F/W 2006–07), whose dresses ethereally evoke pale gothic splendor. Indeed, McQueen’s women resemble the troubled flâneurs of a Victorian necropolis. Most interesting is the fact that these fashionable reactions to tuberculosis were unique to the middle and upper classes, while the lower tiers of society, without the concealing frills of vogue, suffered the bare realities of consumption. ‘Dressing up’ tuberculosis was, no doubt, perpetuated to create a social and 'psychic' distance from lower-class realities of the illness, to make tubercular symptoms more palatable and attractive, though no fashion could ever completely conceal the ugly havoc of the disease.


Bloomsbury Academic

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