How France used fashion to spread the message to vaccinate

The World
Innoculation always prompts anxiety. Here's how France dealt with it three centuries ago.

Innoculation always prompts anxiety. Here's how France dealt with it three centuries ago. 

Karoly Arvai/Reuters

For all the families out there still vaccinating their kids maybe what they need is a headdress declaring their stance. Perhaps something that would really stand out and say, "I'm a concerned parent, and I don't want my kids to get sick and die."

Maybe a giant hat or a wig would do the trick? Sounds crazy, but that tactic seemed to work in France in the 18th century during a scourge of smallpox.

Milliners in Paris created a headdress to commemorate the inoculation of King Louis XVI against smallpox. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell recently wrote in The Atlantic about the headdress and how fashion was used to combat 18th-century fears of the smallpox inoculation.  "Smallpox inoculation had been practiced in Asia and the Middle East for centuries, but it was a fairly new thing in Western Europe. It had been introduced in about 1718 by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was the English Ambassadress to Turkey," says Chrisman-Campbell.

Inoculation was not a simple affair. It involved actually catching smallpox. To catch the disease, healthy patients would insert the puss from a smallpox patient suffering a mild form of the illness. "Once you had it, you were immune, but the trick was to get a very mild case that wouldn't kill you in order to get the immunity. And it often went bad, so there were a lot of fears surrounding the procedure," says Chrisman-Campbell.

After King Louis XV died of smallpox, the newly anointed King Louis XVI decided to become inoculated against the disease. So Louis XVI and his two brothers, according to Chrisman-Campbell, underwent the procedure. And to commemorate their immunity, milliners in Paris created a celebratory headdress called the pouf à l'inoculation.

"It was a tall powdered hairstyle and in it was the serpent of Asclepius, representing medicine; a club, representing conquest; a rising sun, representing Louis XVI; and a flowering olive branch, symbolizing the peace and joy resulting from the royal inoculation," says Chrisman-Campbell.

The headdresses took off as the fashionable "it" item of the day. They were reported widely in Paris newspapers and gossip rags, says Chrisman-Campbell. And the popularity of the headdress led to a wider acceptance of the inoculation procedure.

"It didn't just send a message that inoculation was safe and normal, it made it look cool," says Chrisman-Campbell. She is a historian and also the mother of a 2-year-old. After the recent measles outbreak in Southern California, miles away from where she lived, she thought about the Louis XVI headdress.

"My first thought was, 'Oh, if only we had a pouf à l'inoculation," says Chrisman-Campbell, "The pouf was effective because it was the person who had been inoculated wearing it. So I did find a few T-shirts for little kids saying 'Fully vaccinated. You're welcome.'"