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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.

Why not increase the enthusiasm for "do it yourself" too? creating your own things is a way of working for ourselves, putting together pieces that we no longer use, moving more and more towards vintage and sustainable style. So why not use our time on the block, manually recycling our wardrobes and fabrics to create new apparel or accessories? Let's try to be our own designers, encouraging upcycling more and more in our lifestyle, managing to help the planet too. And if you want some advice, read my book From Trash To Runway, a way to revolutionize your wardrobe, with lots of tips, information, and designs to consider.

You will also have access to a digital area where you can check out more facts about sustainability in the fashion industry, extensive details for patterns and sewing, real images of the pieces created, and even a list by country of second-hand shops, then the complementary fabric that you may need, it would come from reused clothing, to decrease the impact on the environment.

Furthermore, the materials I'm talking about don't have to come from our wardrobe. For example, I created a shirt with old fishing nets, tulle, pieces of shirts, and rhinestones: with creativity and inspiration, the possibilities are endless!

I also believe that people will still appreciate more formal dresses or more fashionable dresses during and after the pandemic. In fact, the destructive effects of the 14th-century plague will lead to a rebirth of cities, culture, arts, and economy. The Renaissance era was marked in the cultural sphere by the year 1453 when Europe changed its face; with the Renaissance, age of titanic enterprises, geniuses, and patrons, the role of women also changed compared to the Middle Ages: "finally, to understand the social life of the higher circles of the Renaissance, it should be known that women were considered equal to man "

Even the mask that we criticize so much, today recalls the pandemic of 1918: one of the striking things is that you tend not to think much about creativity and mask making when you look back at photos from 1918. But, in some of the drawings in people's journals, even in newspaper ads, there is real attention to individuality, to people who chose masks that were part of their person. It is curious how 1918 is representing us today.


Plastic pollution was already one of the biggest threats to our planet before the coronavirus outbreak. Today, however, the sudden increase in the daily use of certain products, including face masks and plastic gloves, to protect people and stop the disease is making matters worse.

Historical data is a reliable indicator, it can be expected that around 75% of the masks used, as well as other waste related to the pandemic, will end up in landfills or float in the seas.

It is estimated that around 129,000 million disposable masks are used worldwide per month. The environmental crisis is also added to the health and socio-economic crisis: in the case of Spain, 659 million is being earned since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of all only 9% is recycled. This translates into millions of tons of plastic ending up in landfills, rivers, or seas in the form of microplastics that will take many years to disappear.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has warned that if the large increase in medical waste, largely made of environmentally harmful single-use plastics, is not managed properly, uncontrolled discharges could occur. But about 80% of plastic pollution could be eliminated in the same period, simply by replacing inadequate regulation, changing business models, and introducing incentives that lead to the reduction of plastic production. Other recommended measures include designing products and packaging that can be more easily recycled and expanding waste collection, particularly in low-income countries.

Furthermore, the environmental impact of masks is significantly reduced if reusable masks are used. However, some reusable masks are designed to use filters and this can increase their overall environmental impact. A study from University College London found that reusable machine washable masks without filters had the least environmental impact. Surprisingly, even taking into account the amount of energy used by the washing machine, hand washing has increased the environmental impact because it uses more hot water and detergent than washing in the washing machine. Disposable filters increase the environmental impact because they are made of plastic similar to disposable masks.

With this situation, it all depends on the citizens. The premise is simple: put aside the classic disposable masks - cheaper, but less ecological - and opt for alternatives that, in addition, to adequately protect us and ensure that we can wear them without risk of shortness of breath, are environmentally friendly.


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