Cloth, Contact and Contagion: Touching Disease in the Past and Present

Categories:

Steph Bennett, University of Leeds


Since the COVID-19 crisis began, clothing has become increasingly significant in our daily lives. From shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) to wearing face masks, our clothing choices have been paramount to our health. Like today, people in the early modern period wore certain clothing and materials to try and keep themselves safe from infection and illness. In many ways, our beliefs and understandings remain very similar.

Certain materials were believed to be safer to wear than others. Wearing linen was considered particularly useful because it was believed to keep the skin clean by removing sweat and filth. This was important as the skin was believed to be porous and vulnerable to contagion from the air. By wearing linen underclothes and changing them regularly, many early modern people believed they were protecting themselves from this risk.

Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, ‘The Washer Woman’, 1732–1740

However, other materials were perceived to be very dangerous. It was believed that disease could be trapped within certain materials and remain there to infect whoever wore the garment next. Contagion could penetrate clothes as easily as it could bodies. Because clothes have greater contact with the skin, there was a greater likelihood of infection entering the pores. Writing in 1572, polymath Andrew Boorde noted that ‘infection will lye and hange long in cloathes’ (p. 52). It was believed that even wearing a dead person’s clothes could spread illness because they contained miasmatic vapours from the corpse.

In 2021, we still use certain materials for specific items of clothing. PPE is made of plastic, most often polypropylene. This makes it easy to wipe down and cleanse surfaces after being in contact with illness. In the seventeenth century, some materials were also chosen for specific textures. Materials with a fine and tight weave like linen and cotton were preferred for underclothes, worn most closely to the skin.  Bedding too was believed to absorb dirt from the body during the night and popular health manuals advised regularly changing of sheets to prevent disease.

Recent research by Susan North noted that there was an aversion to materials and textiles which were porous, padded, or plush in the early modern period. This helps us understand the links between illness and clothing in the early modern period a little better. Wearing particularly soft or porous clothing was avoided because it shared too many characteristics with the skin itself. In 1720, Richard Mead noted that materials like cotton, wool and fur were particularly dangerous and had to be aired for forty days before anyone could wear them to prevent infection (p. 25). Similarly, dispensary physician, John Coakley Lettsom highlighted that ‘woollen and all porous bodies, seem adapted to absorb and retain infection, or putrid effluvia’ (p. 51). Wearing such porous material against the already porous skin would only result in disease.

In 1636, regulations against materials being aired in the streets were published so that miasmatic air couldn’t infect materials. The multitude of stenches emanating from a range of professions like butchers, tanners and candlemakers were considered too poisonous and could seep into clothing. In 1603 James Balmford wrote that ‘It hath béene proued that clothes of infected persons layed vp and not well ayred, being opened though a yéere or more after, haue instantly renewed y Plague’ (p. 14). In Balmford’s text, the air contaminated clothing and textiles become a vehicle for disease. The body was constantly surrounded by potential infection. Clothing had to be protected just as rigorously as bodies themselves.

Studying interactions between the skin and clothing today helps understand the past a little better. Our perceptions of our bodies and the clothes we wear are often shaped by illness and disease. It’s very clear today that without wearing masks and having the right protective equipment and clothing, the COVID-19 crisis could have been even worse. The skin is an essential path through which to navigate understandings of disease and illness. Further research into how the skin and different types of materials interacted can reveal new understandings of the experience of disease and how it shaped people’s lives. There is no better time to re-evaluate how we perceive our bodies than in times of a health crisis.

 

About the author: Steph Bennett will soon be graduating from her master’s degree at the University of Leeds. Her research explores aspects of skin and disease between 1550 and 1750.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *