How pandemics and epidemics influence fashion

Updated: Jan 26, 2021


The pandemic has changed the pace of our daily lives, including our wardrobes. Face coverings are everywhere, sweatpants are the new everyday pants, and women have mostly ditched high heels, hairstyles, and a great deal of makeup.

Going back in time we will remember that the plague (black plague) of the XIV century, which killed almost 20% of the world population, was transmitted through the Silk Road, which connected China, the Middle East, and Europe by land. Through the trade in silk, an essential part of luxury fashion from antiquity to the present, the virus had spread dramatically around the world.

Well, let's consider the fact that even as the world struggles to cope with Covid-19, masks have been added to most wardrobes. And the gloves seem next on the list. But the story of this pandemic is no stranger to fashion. For centuries, people have optimized wardrobes to cope with disease and infection, from headgear to hems up to shoes.

A prime example dates back to when syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), invaded Europe in the late 16th century. The disease caused open sores, blindness, and hair loss. So an elaborate wig (which was also associated with the French royal family, thanks to Louis XIII), was considered an effective way to hide the signs of the disease.

Another example is smallpox, at the end of the 16th century. The disease left its victims with marks all over their faces and, in many cases, they resorted to very heavy paint to cover it. In fact, the person to whom many credits for making face painting a major fad, Queen Elizabeth 1 of England, suffered from smallpox in 1562.

And here we go to the masks: one of the most common masks seen during the famous Venice Carnival has the shape of a long beak. Its name, however, reveals its sinister roots: it is called the Plague Doctor mask. Literally, it means "the doctor of the parasite". This is a very elaborate costume that was designed, according to some, by the French doctor Charles de Lorme, in 1619. He designed the costume, inspired by the armor of a soldier, to be worn by doctors to treat patients of the deadly bubonic plague.

In Japan, on the other hand, the mask is an integral part of the lifestyle, and in fact, they are worn by a significant part of the population. For many, they are a style statement and come with special designs and patterns. However, the roots of the face mask's popularity lie in the Spanish flu pandemic that hit Japan in 1918 and caused thousands of deaths.

Surely in this period we are more oriented towards more comfortable clothes to stay at home, but I think it is also a moment of experimentation: we must be able to survive and we also have the opportunity to work despite everything, focusing first on survival, but looking forward from a few months to a few years to a decade in the future.

Many people are afraid to try a color or are afraid of maybe trying a different shape on their body, or maybe being a little more feminine or masculine, or trying a new trend, now you have this time to try it. You can go from laziness, from a double XL t-shirt and sneakers to excessive makeup with an evening dress. First of all, you have to dress for yourself, it is certainly one of the first things I learned because it increases self-esteem and makes you feel good about yourself.

I hope people start realizing that the reason to get dressed, put on makeup, and find cute clothes is really for yourself. It has never been for anyone else.