Good information about plague doctor attire?
September 24, 2006 3:27 PM   Subscribe

I want to make a plague doctor costume for Halloween, and I want it to be as accurate as possible.

One of these guys. I think they're fantastically creepy, and really want to skulk around in that beaked mask and black robe.

But I want it to be historically correct, and although the plague doctor image seems pretty widespread, I'm having trouble finding sources that describe in much detail (or provide any sort of citation) for the materials and methods used to make them. I'm not even sure the exact time periods and areas where the costumes were worn. There were recurrent epidemics throughout Europe from the initial 1347-48 outbreak up to the plague of Marseilles in 1720, which is a pretty wide window. I've heard that the costume arose later on during the plague centuries, but I'm not exactly sure when and where.

I'd like to know more about the costumes-- dates, places, variations, materials, methods of construction. Tell me what you know, or feel free to point me to a book that has more information, I can try and track it down. Also, if anybody has any tips or ideas for how best to go about making it, I would love that, too.
posted by bookish to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I found a few references by Googling - Venice, doctor, plague. Venice had a hell of a bout of plague, and I've seen the masks available for Carnivale. I suspect that they're made of paper mache like the other Carnivale masks.
posted by puddinghead at 4:16 PM on September 24, 2006

The picture seems to date from 1656. Apparently one of the Commedia dell'Arte characters (unsurprisingly "Il Dottore") wears clothes that are based on doctors' clothes of the period. That might be a good place to start looking, since I assume there's plenty of Commedia dell'Arte costuming information somewhere. That would cover the robes, if not the masks.
posted by posadnitsa at 4:20 PM on September 24, 2006

Maybe you can try contacting these folks about sources. They sell a couple of plague doctor masks, and might let you in on how they do it.

If you are searching on that site, look for "Dottore Peste" and "Naso" masks.
posted by blind.wombat at 4:54 PM on September 24, 2006

What an excellent idea for Halloween!!! I love the plague doctor get up! Here's a link that describes the different things they wore for protection. Hopefully it might help you in your research.

Here's a plague doc mask for sale in the UK. Searching Google images for plague doctor might lead you to other masks for sale.

Have a great time Dr. 17th Century Creepy!
posted by dog food sugar at 5:55 PM on September 24, 2006

Response by poster: I'm not sure about the Venetian carnival-style masks and outfits. They're definately based on the folk figure of the plague doctor, but they seem to be more stylized and playful interpretations.

The masks seem to be made out of paper mache, which I've thought about using to make my own mask. However, I don't think the original doctor's masks would have been made out of paper mache, which bothers me because I'm a neurotic geek.

So the question is, how close to the real doctors are the carnival doctors?

The image date is good, posadnitsa. I noticed that the picture is labeled as 'after J Columbina,' so I wonder how much the original predates this one. I can't find it through google.
posted by bookish at 5:56 PM on September 24, 2006

Side question: are there any movies set during that time?
posted by Clock Attention Issues at 6:01 PM on September 24, 2006

In Restoration, Robert Downey Jr. plays a doctor who treats people during the plague in London, mask and all. It's a good movie, too.
posted by Kronoss at 8:28 PM on September 24, 2006

They didn't wear a mask but a hood which IIRC was made from waxed cloth (leather might have been another option but fabric would be easier to work with). The beak was stuffed with strong smelling herbs and it would have gathered at the neck. I'm pretty sure they wore amulets and eye of newt, toe of frog and other interesting things to ward off the plague as well.

You could try searches for Elizabethan Doctors during Shakespeare's time, also might want to try searching the digital archives at the Wellcome Trust if you haven't already.

Though, I would approach the problem differently. Since it seems to be next to impossible to find anything on how the mask was made I'd research common materials and techniques used during that time - which would be far easier to gather information on.

If you ever do find out how it's done, I'd love to know as well.
posted by squeak at 10:59 PM on September 24, 2006

Forgot to add: find out who did the famous woodcut of the plague doctor (or the author of the book), the date of the book and which country it originated from and then use that information to do research on millinery from that area/era to come up with techniques and materials.
posted by squeak at 11:03 PM on September 24, 2006

I would find out more about that reproduction costume depicted in the article; it looks pretty accurate to me. The photo info says that the picture was taken in Jena, a town in central Germany. The costume might be an exhibit at the Phyletisches Museum, Jena's biological museum. (Another candidate is Jena's optical museum, which would perhaps display the crystal-lensed equipment as an early example of medical headgear).

If you have a friend who speaks German, ask them to e-mail the museums' curators and inquire after the costume; you might be able to get a lot of practical, historically grounded info about how to build one of these getups yourself.
posted by Iridic at 10:01 AM on September 25, 2006

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