A Leopard Must Change its Spots….

I embark upon this new year, wearing plaid pants, a banana brooch, and a big-old leopard-print swing coat. Embedded in the threads of my loud and incongruous get-up are messages of hope, destiny and….what the hell am I doing with myself in 2018?!?! Like the clothes that I wear, this question is rhetorical.

As a Costume Studies grad student at NYU, I know that the clothing that I wear contains conative and subliminal declarations about who I am. I’ve written research papers about all of this. It must be so! But, this notion only makes me uneasy. Is my 1990s punk-revival/granny outfit a sign that I’m looking to the past for comfort, or that my future is likely to be a circus? Perhaps it’s just a flamboyant palette cleanser for a tart 2017. The past year contained moments of glory and growth, but also a few minor disasters. For example, in the midst of grad school, my long-term boyfriend cheated on me, moved to Florida, and left me with a dilemma about finding someone to help me pay the rent, while simultaneously filling the void in my gutted soul (OK. That was a bit dramatic, but I am dressed like a wild-cat!). With deft anger and scrappy resilience, I managed to resolve this problem, but, by-golly, am I left with a bad taste in my mouth! Holding onto my knickers, and finding comfort in loud textile patterns, I go forth.

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In 2018, I have decided to look for a new job, publish my work, rekindle old friendships, and ignite new ones. Most excitingly, I am determined to go on 100 hot dates with myself. No historic site, museum, garden, mountain-top, restaurant or dive-bar will be immune from my romantic inclinations, and desirous heart. Oh, to find myself in a beautiful sunrise, or delicious flan! So, stay-tuned. Prepare to come-along with me through the annals of history, the paths of curiosity, all while wearing clothing of major connotation. In short, I will be my own goddamned muse!

Happy 2018, darlings! Mwah!


Medicine in the Age of Miasma

What does this silhouette say to a modern viewer? Does it remind you of Carnival of Venice masks, or the mysterious character from V for Vendetta? Maybe you are reminded of the goggle-donning steam punk, or perhaps it just resembles any vague nightmare—a bird-like monster clad in a broad-brimmed hat. Whatever the association, this particular costume does not conjure up feelings of comfort and relief. Given its uneasy connotations, would you be surprised if I said that this was the uniform of a medical practitioner? Yes, indeed. This is the outfit of the seventeenth-century plague doctor.

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Although this uniform may have been worn prior to the seventeenth-century (1347 marked the first major outbreak of the plague in Europe, followed by another major outbreak in 1665), researchers have only been able to find written and illustrated proof of its existence dating from the 1600s. The uniform consisted of a long leather or waxed canvas over-garment, which gave the wearer coverage from neck to ankle, and waxed canvas leggings and gloves.  A rather incongruous broad-brimmed hat tops the beaked mask with glass-goggle eyes. Although it is quite understandable that a doctor treating plague victims would want to cover their skin from infected bodies, what is the purpose of a long, hooked beak?

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Aside from appearing wholly terrifying, the bird mask had a function in terms seventeenth-century science.  Inside the hollowed out beak the plague doctor would keep sweet or pungent smelling herbs, such as camphor, mint, lavender or even a vinegar soaked sponge. This practice was in support of the “miasma theory” of infection, which theorized that disease was spread by bad smells. It would take a couple of centuries for germ theory to come along and debunk this notion, but during the 1600s the miasma theory, and its accompanying plague doctor uniform, was at the forefront of medicine and innovation.


The figure most associated with the plague doctor uniform is Charles de Lorme, who was the principal physician to Louis XIII. He had written detailed descriptions of the uniform:

“The nose is half a foot long, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the herbs enclosed further along the beak….”

Charles de Lorme would have understood that the best way to protect himself against the ravages of the plague was to combat the foul miasma with flowers and herbs. Now, that’s “flower power.” Aside from a handy perfumed mask, plague doctors often carried wooden canes, which are thought to have been used to keep diseased patients at a distance.


Despite the “functional” aspects of the plague doctor’s uniform, I cannot help but focus on the disturbing appearance of the ensemble. It is doubtful that if I lay on my death-bed— bubous bursting under the skin—I would be soothed by the sight of a creature, half-man, half-beast. I am reminded of otherworldly beings: the anthromorphic gods of the Native Americans, Africans, Indians and Egyptians. These figures are associated with magic and the mysterious unknown. They are separate from the human world, although they act as intermediaries.

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Primarily, I am reminded of Anubis, the jackal-headed Egyptian god who was responsible for weighing one’s heart in the afterlife. During the late pharaonic era (664-332 BC), Anubis is associated with guiding individuals across the threshold of an earthly existence to the afterlife.  When one’s time has expired on earth, Anubis would see to it that one made it to the next chapter. To me, the plague doctor appears to be a messenger from the other side. Someone who is experienced in ritual passage. Whether he ushers mortal souls to a heaven, or hell, to the jaws of the crocodile headed Ammit, or simply to return to the soil, the plague doctor is a symbol of transition.