Fashion and The Plague 1665 - Robes Most Resistant and Clothing Most Infectious

by Amy de la Haye on 25 March 2021

Looking at the Great Plague, Amy de la Haye explores the status of clothing when it emerges as the culprit of, not a radical response to, crisis.

Looking at the Great Plague, Amy de la Haye explores the status of clothing when it emerges as the culprit of, not a radical response to, crisis.

'Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,

Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,

Their caps with glasses are designed,

Their bills with antidotes all lined,

That foulsome air may do no harm’ (popular verse 1665).

2. William Blake, 'Pestilence: Death of The First Born', pen and watercolour over pencil on paper, (30.4 x 34.2 cm), c.1805, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The term pestilence defines a fatal epidemic or pandemic disease and was often used in relation to the plague. The striking artwork above, is a biblical allegory taken from Exodus, chapter 12. The gigantic figure Pestilence is depicted raging through Egypt spreading a contagious disease that will kill firstborn children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ignited a fascination - scientific and morbid - with previous highly contagious and deadly diseases. Diseases that have decimated real and fictive populations. My own interest was piqued by the discovery of a beaked head covering, worn by a plague doctor circa 1700, housed in the Deutsches Medicines Museum [1]. It was designed to resist infection and, as such, might be considered as a precursor of the hazmat suit and personal protective equipment (PPE), the latter so vital to the current pandemic and the subject of political, financial and social controversy.

Unlike themes explored in previous essays, this narrative explores functionality rather than symbolism and clothing emerges as the culprit of, not a radical response to, crisis. The crisis is the plague, which killed tens of millions of people living in Asia and Europe in the mid-1300s, which saw a major resurgence in Italy in 1656 and in London in 1665 [2].

Throughout this period, it was widely accepted that infectious diseases were conveyed by air and manifest as foul odours. This would become known as miasma theory. The discovery of germs, such as the Yersinia Pestis bacteria that caused the plague, would not take place until the mid-19th century. Victims of bubonic plague developed swellings (buboes) in the lymph nodes that became blackened – hence the term ‘Black Death’. Another strain, pneumonic plague, attacked the lungs. To negate infectious inhalations whilst occupying public spaces, it was commonplace to hold a small bunch of fragrant flowers and herbs close to the face. These fumigators were called nosegays or tussie-mussies; they comprised part of everyday dressed appearance and determined gesture.

1. Plague doctor head covering, waxed fabric, leather and glass, c. 1700, Deutsches Medicines Museum.
5. Engraving depicting a plague doctor, 1656. The physician wears the signature hat of this male profession over a protective beaked head covering with a full-length robe and bow-tied shoes, rather than the more protective boots worn by the 18th-century.

In the Spring of 1665, at the start of the outbreak, King Charles ll, the nobility and many wealthy Londoners, including physicians, fled London to the safety of their country estates. The diary of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) [3], royal naval administrator and MP, who chose to remain in London, provides a vivid record of daily life during the ‘Great Plague’. On Monday 16 October 1665 Pepys wrote,

'But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician, and but one apothecary left, all being dead – but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week. God send it.'

Pepys, and his wife, retained their keen interest in fashion throughout the crisis [4]. His entry for Sunday 3 September reads,

'(Lord’s day). Up; and put on my coloured silk suit very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done, as to periwiggs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire, for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.'

3. John Hayls, Portrait of Samuel Pepys, oil on canvas, (75.6 x 62.9cm), 1666, © National Portrait Gallery, London
4. Blue velvet latchet tie shoes, c. 1660. This is the type of shoe a woman of fashion, such as Pepys’ wife would have worn when stepping into the streets of London. This particular pair are believed to be worn by Lady Mary Stanhope. Photograph: The Shoe Collection, Northampton Museums & Art Gallery © John Roan.

In the city streets populated with men like Pepys attired in all their finery, working people going about their daily business and the resident destitute, the sight of a plague doctor must have been spine-chilling. It was customary for a physician to wear a wide-brimmed hat and brandish a finely crafted wooden cane, some of which contained a pomander in the handle, in order to maintain social distancing when examining a patient and whilst negotiating busy thoroughfares. However, during ‘the terror’, they adopted a protective outfit, developed in Paris in response to the 1619 outbreak, by one Charles de Lorme. His design was inspired by armour. The plague doctor’s occupational dress comprised a head covering, floor length robe, gauntlets, leggings or breeches and shoes or boots made from Morocco leather, or some garments from waxed canvas [5] [6]. The most striking detail is the curved, bird-beak-like, form which covered the nose [1]. This was fashioned to be stuffed with fragrant dried flowers, such as roses and carnations; herbs, including mint; spices and/or a vinegar-soaked sponge. It had cut-out ‘nostrils’ so that breath could be drawn and fed through these filters. Circular glass inserts provided visibility.

In 1656 the plague claimed around 145,000 lives in Rome and 300,000 in Naples. The year of the London outbreak (1665) , 68,596 deaths from plague were recorded in the city, although many historians suspect the number was closer to 100,000 – some 15% of the population. When there were no more spaces in burial grounds, huge ‘plague pits’ became the final resting place for many victims.

6. Engraving of a plague doctor, Rome, 18th century. By this date, and in line with prevailing menswear fashions, the physician wears a waisted tailored coat and also protective footwear, © The Trustees of the British Museum.
7. Signed S (George Shaw), hand-coloured copperplate engraving from George Shaw and Frederick Nodder's 'The Naturalist's Miscellany' (1795), depicting the human body louse, Pediculus Humanus, Alamy Stock Photo. The armour-like form of the louse is reminiscent of the protective plague doctor's uniform.
8. William Blake, 'Pestilence', pen and watercolour over pencil, (31.2 × 43cm), c. 1805, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. By this date the plague had died out in London, although there was another resurgence that spread worldwide from the mid-to-late 19th century. Blake’s artwork conveys powerfully the human horrors of the plague and the business of death.

For over two hundred years it was widely accepted that the plague was spread by bites from rat fleas. However, recent scientific research has revealed that it was in fact clothing and textiles containing human fleas and lice that were responsible for spreading the pestilence which killed one-third of the European population between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. This discovery explains the outbreak in a small rural village in Derbyshire called Eyam following an order of cloth from London placed by local tailor Alexander Hadfield in August 1665. As the cloth arrived damp, Hadfield instructed his assistant George Viccars to spread it out by the fire to air. Unbeknownst to Hadfield, the cloth contained infected fleas or lice. George died two days later and the plague spread like wild fire through the village. In order to avoid contaminating neighbouring towns, the inhabitants of Eyam, led by the local priest, agreed to place themselves under quarantine. No one could enter or leave the village; money for food was placed in bowls of vinegar and left on the outskirts. This communal self-sacrifice contained the infection and by November 1666 Eyam was deemed plague free.

In the 17th century, the plague doctor’s encompassing protective attire, worn at a time that predates the discovery of germs, would have saved many medics' lives. At the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic Britain’s stockpiles of PPE were vastly inadequate. Global demand and prices soared in tandem. In a period of just five months (from February to July 2020) almost £12.5bn of taxpayer’s money was spent on 32bn items of PPE. Body bags alone cost fourteen times more than in 2019. 32bn items…most used once and then necessarily trashed; huge quantities entirely wasted as orders placed - some awarded to individuals with no relevant experience who made huge profits - failed to meet stringent quality controls. Many workers in hospitals, care homes and local medical practices continue vital work, without critical protection, privileging the lives of others above their own.

In March 2020, London-based fashion designers Holly Fulton, Bethany Williams and Phoebe English formed the Emergency Designers Network (EDN), joined soon after by Cozette McCreery. The impact of this voluntary organisation, that started out supplying key garments such as cotton scrubs on a local level, now extends internationally as the group provides advice and support to other groups around the globe.

The plague, like the COVID-19 pandemic, was indiscriminate about who became infected, but it was and remains the most vulnerable people – those with existing poor health, housing, diets and opportunities – who bore and bear the greatest brunt. The moral, political, social and environmental implications of how governments have variously handled the pandemic – financially enriching some; failing to adequately recompense frontline workers and address inequity - are profound and long lasting. How will they be interpreted in the centuries to come?

9. Marine Serre A/W 20. The French fashion designer has been showing face masks and protective clothing on the runway since she made her debut in 2017. She refers to her clothes as 'Futurewear', preparing for the not-too-distant future where the repercussions of global warming, including human diseases, are in full effect.



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