Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty

Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty

Trista - September 12, 2018

While tuberculosis may seem like a remote and ancient disease threat to many of us today, it was once responsible for 25% of the annual deaths in Europe. With such a deadly presence, one would assume that tuberculosis was feared and reviled, but surprisingly that was not entirely the case. The physical ravages of this particular disease include weight loss, lethargy, flushed cheeks, and pale skin. These symptoms are actually in line with the beauty standards of the Victorian period.

The Victorian period, which was the latter half of the 19th Century, was marked by a strong class consciousness in which beautiful, well-bred women were expected to do no physical work whatsoever. Correspondingly, any hints of a suntan or muscle tone were frowned upon as a hallmark of the unattractive working class. Respectable women would be thin, pale and of delicate health. Upper-class women were even considered more prone to tuberculosis, making affliction with the disease an object of class status.

The thin, delicate wilting flower of a woman was widely portrayed in the art and literature of the period. Many of the beauty icons of the day were depicted as skeletal thin with pale skin, glinting eyes, and red cheeks and lips. Since tuberculosis provided a woman with these features throughout the natural course of the disease, it managed to become fashionable while stalking European people with deadly consequences.

Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty
Painting of a woman in white. Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. Wikimedia

Victorian Ideals of Beauty

When one thinks of the great beauties of the Victorian era, some of the famous portraits of the time, like that of Marie Duplessis, likely come to mind. Such pictures depict thin, soft-looking women with ghostly pale skin. They have wide, bright eyes with no color in the skin aside from possibly rosy cheeks and lips. Their chests and shoulders are likely bare, exposing delicate bones. Unluckily for the women of the day, affliction with consumption allowed the sufferer to display all the beauty hallmarks of the day without violating the period’s strict hygiene standards.

Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty
Marie Duplessis, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 23 in 1847, in a 19th-century portrait by Édouard Viénot. Wikimedia

The Victorian era was a period of strict, unflinching morals. The use of cosmetics was strongly associated with actresses and prostitutes, both of whom were of meager status in the period. Therefore, the flushed cheeks and perpetually red lips of the consumptive were highly prized and perhaps even envied. While such a look could be replicated with makeup, it would have caused a scandal had the composition been discovered. In addition to the flushed cheeks and ruby lips, tuberculosis often gave sufferers bright, sparkling eyes. Such eyes have long been prized for women, with Italian renaissance women going so far as to nightshade eye drops to dilate their pupils, hence the plant’s common name belladonna for “beautiful woman.”

The Victorian era was also, despite being named after a queen, a profoundly patriarchal period where women were viewed as delicate, frail creatures that needed to be cared for by men. The image of the fragile, pale woman on a fainting couch is an iconic scene of the period. Women were viewed as almost childlike in the period, with the need for caretakers and supervision. A thin, fragile birdlike woman was the ideal.

Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty
A portrait of his sister, who died from tuberculosis, by Edvard Munch. Wikimedia

Symptoms of Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis was unique in its ability to replicate the beauty standards of the Victorian era. Smallpox, also prevalent at the time, left the victim disfigured and was later extremely feared by the populace. Cholera was concentrated mainly in deprived areas and associated with squalor. Tuberculosis stood alone in its connection to the wealthy while also creating physical symptoms that made the sufferer appear lovely.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that typically affects the lungs, although it can change other parts of the body. In the common lung infection, sufferers would have a persistent low-grade fever that was responsible for the flushed lips and cheeks of those affected. In those for whom the disease progression was slow, weight loss and wasting would develop as the lungs’ condition worsened. This process led to the dainty, waif-ish appearance that was so valued at the time. The necessity of bed rest due to weakness and lethargy also helped develop the period’s desired aesthetic. Sufferers were kept indoors and would show ashen skin that could be further exacerbated by blood loss through coughing up blood.

Tuberculosis in Art and Literature

Beloved 19th Century author Charlotte Brontë wrote in 1849 that “Consumption, I am aware, is a flattering malady” – the same year that she lost her sister Anne to tuberculosis and a year after she lost her sister Emily to the same disease. She further discussed Anne’s illness, writing “Anne’s illness has of late assumed a less alarming character than it had in the beginning: the hectic is allayed; the cough gives a more frequent reprieve. Could I but believe she would live two years — a year longer, I should be thankful: I dreaded the terrors of the swift messenger which snatched Emily from us, as it seemed, in a few days.”

Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty
“Dropsy Courting Consumption,” color etching by T. Rowlandson. Wellcome Collection

Despite losing two dear sisters to the disease, Brontë still displayed an appreciation for the aesthetic that accompanied the oft-fatal infection. Other artists of the time supported this notion as well. Composter Giuseppe Verdi featured a beautiful heroine afflicted with consumption in his opera La Traviata in 1853. He based the opera on a play that was itself an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Dame aux Camélias. The story was loosely based on the life of courtesan and tuberculosis victim, Marie Duplessis, pictured above. The famous portrait of Duplessis with extremely fair skin and shadowed eyes beautifully demonstrates the consumptive aesthetic of the time.

Noble, beautiful victims of tuberculosis were a common theme throughout the period. Countless paintings can be found of delicate, pale victims in bed surrounded by grieving loved ones. The iconography of birds, signifying the spirit ready to leave the body, was commonly included. Numerous literary icons fell to tuberculosis as well, including Fantine in Les Miserables and Katerina Ivanova in Crime and Punishment.

Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty
“The Common Lot,” color lithograph by J. Bouvier. Wellcome Collection

Tuberculosis and Fashion

At the start of the Victorian era, the neo-classical style of dress was the main trend among upper-class women. Such clothing included thin, sheer fabrics and tight straight lines that hid the feminine figure. The chest and neck were typically revealed to highlight pale skin and prominent collar bones. Long trains trailed behind dresses to elongate thins silhouettes. The tightness of the corset required for such dresses often caused a stooped figure and left women quite weakened by the lack of ability to breathe deeply.

Interestingly, as breakthroughs in identifying the cause of tuberculosis came to light, the fashions tied to consumptive chic began to change. The long, flowing trains of neo-classical dresses were shortened to avoid dragging through mud and waste in the street, which was thought to help prevent the spread of disease. The incredibly tight tubular shapes of dresses were slightly relaxed to give a curvier, healthier-looking silhouette and allow for more vigorous movement. The thin, wispy fabrics once popular for both the living and dying were replaced by sturdier, warmer structures that were thought to be more conducive to health.

Tuberculosis Became the Victorian Standard of Beauty
Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1865. Painting by Franz Winterhalter. Wikimedia

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as tuberculosis fell out of fashion, quite literally, it became associated with the lower and poorer classes. What was once a tragically beautiful disease of the wealthy and the brilliant become associated with squalor and poverty? Healthy and vigorous appearances now became a symbol of wealth. Much of the sympathy towards the afflicted was lost as the disease changed classes.

Modern Beauty and Disease

While the idea of the disease being fashionable may seem outlandish at first, and a relic of the past, much more recent examples of disease chic are easy to find. One needs to look no further than the infamous heroic chic Calvin Klein ads of the 1990s. At the time, the ads were hugely controversial for glorifying drug abuse by featuring the skeletal thin and heroin-addicted model Kate Moss. The ads became a cultural phenomenon with television shows like Seinfeld making jokes about the trend.

An even more recent example is the trend of “pro-ana” or pro-anorexia. There are online communities dedicated to glorifying the appearance of sufferers of anorexia and posting “thinspiration” photos of emaciated women. While neither modern examples are contagious diseases, like tuberculosis, they are still cases of our society glorifying the physical ravages of disease on the female body.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Science Museum – Tuberculosis: A Fashionable Disease?

Hyperallergic – How Tuberculosis Symptoms Became Ideals of Beauty in the 19th Century

Canvas – Arts: Tuberculosis and Victorian Literature

The Guardian – Tuberculosis Thriving In ‘Victorian’ London, Says Expert

BBC Culture – The Family Tragedy That Inspired the Brontës’ Greatest Books

History of Yesterday – How This 18th Century Disease Shaped Beauty Standards

Hekton International – “Breath of Life You’ll Be to Me” – The Portrayal of Tuberculosis in The Opera ‘La Traviata’

San Francisco Opera – Consuming Consumption: Tuberculosis on the Opera Stage

Insider Hook – How Tuberculosis Shaped Victorian Goth Fashion

Hunger TV – High Fashion, Heroin Chic

Indie Magazine – The Controversial Evolution of Calvin Klein

History Collection – 18 Facts that Prove the Victorians Weren’t as Prudish as People Thought