FACT: Syphilis may have had a major impact on fashion

2020-02-26

Syphilis, while nothing to be ashamed of, is not what you’d call a glamorous condition. It starts with painless sores followed by a rash, but left untreated by antibiotics, the disease’s tertiary phase can cause unsightly bulbous growths, necrotizing ulcers, and hair loss, not to mention more pressing concerns like heart and neurological damage. According to some scholars, these unfortunate side effects didn’t necessarily leave sufferers cowering in the shadows—in some cases, fashion may have evolved to help hide the signs of late-stage syphilis. The most commonly cited example of this is the powdered wig, which didn’t become the sign of polite society we see in period films until the influence of King Louis XIV of France. Historians note that the wigs were of middling popularity until this young king began to don them during the 17th century. Louis XIV started to lose his hair around age 17, so it’s not surprising that he turned wigs into a fashion trend. But it’s quite possible that his hair loss—and perhaps that of his cousin, King Charles II of England, who also loved a good powdered wig—was due to syphilis. In any case, the royal love of fussy wigs provided a great cover for the truly countless number of syphilis patients running around Europe at the time. Another, slightly more controversial theory: That codpieces served to mask the otherwise suspicious bulge created by medicated bandages wrapped around genital sores. Not all historians buy this notion, and the codpiece’s remarkably short-lived period of popularity means we know precious little about them. Too bad shoving stuff down your pants didn’t stick around. Finally, our third potential syphilitic fashion moment: Sunglasses. Because, well, where else are you going to put your fake nose? Listen to this week’s episode to find out more.

popsci.com, 26 February 2020
; https://www.popsci.com