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A Fashion Historian on the Relationship Between Clothing and Disease

Alison Matthews David considers the past as we decide what to wear and how to protect ourselves during the pandemic.

Dr. Alison Matthews David giving her presentation on “Fashion Victims and Germ Warfare” for the National Arts Club (all screenshots by Elisa Wouk Almino/Hyperallergic)

“Clothing can both harm and protect us,” says fashion historian and author Dr. Alison Matthews David. For centuries, accessories like hats and gloves have been used as shields and even tools of self-defense. But clothing has also been an insidious “carrier of disease.”

On Tuesday, Matthews David was invited by New York City’s National Arts Club to share her research in a Zoom talk titled “Fashion Victims: Germ Warfare.” (The presentation drew heavily from her book Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present.) The topic is only timely, as we consider what to wear and how to protect ourselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Do virus particles spread through clothes? Should we wash our clothes every time we leave the house?

These anxieties, Matthews David revealed, are nothing new. In Victorian times, people believed long skirts dragged all kinds of diseases — a 1900 cartoon from Puck magazine shows a maid dusting off clouds of influenza and typhoid from one such skirt. (Typhus did, in fact, travel through clothes that couldn’t be laundered.) To help combat this, in the early 20th century, women began carrying around skirt grips to hitch up the trailing fabric. Matthews David suspects that the switch to shorter skirts had at least something to do with paranoias around hygiene.

Skirt grips (on the left) were used to hitch up long skirts, which were thought to drag microbes and germs.

Large, voluminous skirts, known as crinolines, are also being revisited as early forms of “social distancing.” While this seems funny at first, Matthews David says that women really did think of the skirt that way — it “gave them space in public,” so that “people couldn’t touch or grab them.” Similarly, broad-rimmed hats created a kind of protective orbit, preventing people from encroaching (in one caricature, a woman pokes a man with her hatpin for sitting too close to her on the train). The hats and skirts were social measures reflective of their era, but their relevance to our current moment is hard to overlook. A hoop skirt might be useful on those infrequent grocery trips.

Caricature of a woman poking a man with her hatpin

Today, in pandemic times, “we’re all rethinking about what we touch,” said Matthews David. We’re asking ourselves things like, “Should I wear gloves?” According to the historian, if we were to time travel to the 1800s, any member of the elite class would probably be disgusted by the suggestion of leaving the house without gloves — shaking with one’s bare hands was considered downright dirty.

The elite class in the 1800s always left the house with a pair of gloves on.

The other major clothing item we’re all thinking about is, of course, masks. In one of her cleverly illustrated slides, Matthews David compared the masks that plague doctors wore — equipped with a beak infused with sweet smells, which were thought to be protective — to the “more modern” prototypes being fabricated by the likes of Chanel.

Plague doctor (left) wearing a mask infused with protective scents; Chanel mask (left) manufactured for the COVID-19 pandemic

Once upon a time, masks were considered fashion items “to protect ladies from dust and wind,” Matthews David pointed out. But today, in Western culture, masks have primarily become signs “of suspicion and distrust” (the masked bandit).

When I asked Matthews David if she had to predict one change in how we dress after this pandemic has hopefully passed, she asserted, “Social practice around clothing will change […] From a Western consumer perspective, I imagine that the cloth mask will become a staple in many wardrobes, especially in urban areas and close quarters like supermarkets. We’ll start carrying them around with us and put them on when necessary.”

People share their work-from-home outfits on social media

Our relationship to clothing is arguably already evolving, as we share our work-from-home outfits and dress for comfort. In an email exchange, Matthews David shared that she’s been thinking about “all the women sighing with relief in terms of going braless” and “whether women’s dress tends to shift more than men’s after times of crisis.” (Consider the 1920s, when women’s dress radically changed after World War I.)

As she touched upon during her talk, there is a powerful link between our mental and psychological health and what we wear. Major shifts like the pandemic we are experiencing now make us grow more conscientious of this connection, as some of us find newfound pleasure in putting on a nice outfit to run a supermarket errand.

At the end of the talk, which you can watch in full on YouTube, a listener asked Matthews David what measures she takes, if any, to avoid the various “dangers” of fashion in our present moment and beyond. Her advice: “I’m very careful to launder everything before I wear it.”

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