In 1619, the French medical doctor Charles de Lorme designed a special uniform for doctors treating plague patients. Comprising a long coat, gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed hat and a wooden cane, typically all in black, the distinguishing feature of the priest-like uniform was the bird-like mask. With its six-inch beak and glass eye holes, the resultant appearance of the doctor was utterly terrifying—which explains why it’s often worn today as a Halloween costume—not least for the fact that it indicated to the patient that you were likely close to death.
It seems ridiculous to us today, but Lorme’s concept was not altogether ridiculous. Medical science was, at the time, pretty nascent—the Black Death killed millions through the 14th century before the plague outbreaks of 17th century Europe—and he and others in his profession postulated that germs were spread by odorous air. Herbs and flowers were thus installed within the beak of the mask, the idea being that through purification the attending doctor would be protected from the plague. Of course, a bouquet of mint and carnation didn’t stop the plague from onward march, however it was the full body covering of the uniform that did, in fact, protect the doctors from another form of transmission: through the bites of fleas and rodents.
As medical-grade face masks become part of our daily lives in stopping the spread of COVID-19—the virus that has torn through the world over the past nine months with such spectacular speed and efficiency—it’s interesting to examine the ways in which the way we dress has, throughout history, been directly influenced by and reflects the medical crises of our time. While the plague doctor masks uniform of the 17th century is certainly wacky in retrospect, they seem resolutely sensible in contrast to other sartorial innovations.
"That the history of dress is so inextricably linked with that of medicine suggests that the current changes to apparel manufacturing and our sartorial norms are subject to continued evolution in the future."
In western history, long hair traditionally denoted virility and gentility, though when a syphilis epidemic spread across Europe in the 16th century, wigs became a means to conceal the sores and patchy baldness that came with the disease. After Queen Elizabeth recovered from the small pox in 1562, her famously fair skin—a symbol of class, evidence of not having worked in the sun—was now covered in scars. Her solution? Heavy white powder—a rather lethal combination of vinegar and lead—that became both a fashionable statement and a means of concealing her misfortune.
Of course, these examples have their motivations rooted firmly in aesthetics, whereas other, later developments more directly correlate with improving health. Victorian-era corsets, with their heavy, boned structure, were thought to exacerbate the effects of tuberculosis by limiting movement of the airways and lungs, and subsequently replaced with elasticised versions (termed ‘health corsets’). Meanwhile, the extravagantly sculpted facial hair of men of the period—and the razors used to maintain the scruff—came to be deemed unsafe. “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,” wrote American doctor Edwin F Bowers 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.”
Faced today with a pandemic of similarly exponential potential to the previous viruses and diseases that came to define generations, the way we clothe ourselves has once again become central to the discussion of containment and repellent of, in this case, COVID-19.
“We really believe that demand will continue to grow,” says Fabio Tamburini, the CEO of Albini Group, an Italian fabric manufacturer that’s developed, in collaboration with HeiQ Viroblock, a material that it claims will protect its wearer against viruses and bacteria. “We are approaching a new way of living, working and travelling. People want to feel safe, and even when the pandemic is over, we will all keep looking for ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones, and as we start moving more, travelling more, using public transportation more, we need to take precautions, and in this context the ViroFormula fabrics can offer a solution. They offer extra safety and protection, and they’re perfect for every occasion.” Indeed, the ViroFormula fabric is designed not for use by medical professionals but rather in shirting and tailoring, as the application does not change the physical property of the fabric. Xacus, an Italian shirtmaker, is the first client to bring commercial products to market.
"After Queen Elizabeth recovered from the small pox in 1562, her famously fair skin—a symbol of class, evidence of not having worked in the sun—was now covered in scars. Her solution? Heavy white powder—a rather lethal combination of vinegar and lead—that became both a fashionable statement and a means of concealing her misfortune."
While autoinoculation—whereby a person contracts a virus by touching a contaminated surface, such as a piece of clothing—is typically deemed a secondary route of infection for COVID-19, which is more commonly transmitted through airborne droplets, there’s still evidence that infectious bacteria can linger on fabric. Through its combination of silver-based technologies and fatty vesicle technology (known as Liposomes), Albini’s fabric destroys viruses by depleting the viral membrane of its cholesterol content. “Customers are really starting to think of clothes as a solution for health and wellness,” says Tamburini, pointing to the company’s other developments, which include a UV-protective formula to absorb reflective harmful ultra-violet rays before they can reach the skin, as an example of demand driving development.
“Products offering health benefits are carving a position in wardrobes, not just pantries, and we have seen customers look for holistic approaches to address the body and the mind,” says fabric specialist Julie Davies, the general manager of wool processing innovation and not-for-profit organisation Woolmark. Merino wool, the fibre shorn from sheep to create apparel and interior products, is a live fibre, and the unique crimp of its structure means it can protect the wearer, and even contribute to better health. Wool carpets, for example, can absorb pollutants such as formaldehyde and sulphur dioxide, purifying the air for up to 30 years, while superfine Merino wool creates a microclimate between the fabric and the skin, significantly reducing the symptoms of eczema sufferers. “No other fibre—natural or man-made—can match all of wool’s benefits,” adds Davies. “We’re now working on treatments which will bolster wool’s health and wellbeing benefits even further, and I think in a post-COVID world we will see a return to natural fibres accelerated.”
Beyond holistic wellbeing, the apparel industry has been irrevocably changed by the impact of COVID, investing resources in the development of medical-grade solutions to the virus. Luxury houses, such as Louis Vuitton and Ermenegildo Zegna, pivoted their resources to produce personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers early in the spread of the pandemic, the latter creating some 300,000 hospital suits. Many of the beauty brands under the umbrella of LVMH, Vuitton’s parent company, halted cosmetic and fragrance production and instead began pumping out hand sanitiser. Not before had we seen the antibacterial gel in Christian Dior-branded bottles. Prada, meanwhile, financially supported Proteggimi, a research project on male susceptibility to the virus.
In Israel, a start-up company, Sonovia, engineered an anti-pathogen fabric for use in masks, with a zinc-coating on a cotton-polyester fabric providing durable protection against COVID. The commercially available SonoMask, with its metallic nanoparticles, has led the way for Sonovia to begin development of a full suite of protective garments. “There’s an incredibly strong uptake by clients,” explains the company’s chief technology officer, Liat Goldhammer. “As textiles, like our clothing, are in direct contact with our skin and body, they are potential carriers of pathogens but can also serve as a life-saving vehicle in the global effort of the prevention and control of the spread of COVID. The textile industry, one of the first sectors of mass production in history, is a veteran of collaboration with academia and science, and our product is an example of this chemistry.”
“Products offering health benefits are carving a position in wardrobes, not just pantries, and we have seen customers look for holistic approaches to address the body and the mind,” says fabric specialist Julie Davies.
That the history of dress is so inextricably linked with that of medicine suggests that the current changes to apparel manufacturing and our sartorial norms are subject to continued evolution in the future. In a review of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, published in 2019, writer Laura Spinney presciently asks: “When will we learn never to declare the end of anything? Only 50 years ago, two prominent US universities closed their infectious disease departments, sure that the problem they studied had been solved. Now, cases of measles and mumps are on the rise again in Europe and the United States, new infectious diseases are emerging at an unprecedented rate, and the threat of the next pandemic keeps philanthropist Bill Gates awake at night… [the] broader thesis is that infectious diseases have shaped social evolution no less powerfully than have wars, revolutions and economic crises.”
And so just as in 1918, when cities across the US passed ordinances to enforce the wearing of masks to stop the spread of influenza, with fines and your name being printed in the newspaper for those who rebelled, we find ourselves at a turning-point that will come to define the fashion choices of our generation.