Plague doctor mask

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Plague Doctor Mask History

The history of the Plague doctor mask goes back to the 16th Century. French physician Charles de Lorme, started wearing a full face mask with a hollow beak while treating plague victims.

Lorme wrote the mask had a “nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak.”

The mask served a purpose. It was worn by doctors and physicians as a medical uniform.  With the belief, it would have protected them from infected patients. Originally, the mask’s eye holes were sealed by two pieces of glass for an added layer of protection. Most plague doctor masks lack this feature today.

Though the beak mask has become an iconic symbol of the Black Death, there is no evidence it was actually worn during the 14th Century epidemic.

Why a plague doctor’s costume?

If you have already read the Black Death story, you will know that the doctors were responsible for treating the plague patients and they wore designed suits.

The Black Death pandemic was spreading rapidly in all corners of all European countries. Nothing and no one could stop the Yersinia pestis, and they did not know how it could expand so quickly. One of the most popular theories at the time was the miasma theory, based on the idea that the Black Death was transmitted through the air, known as “Bad Air” or “Night Air”, and through physical contact.

The sick people fell in the streets, and no one helped them because of the fear of being infected. It was then that the doctors decided to take action, developing a totally hermetic costume to avoid the contagion and be able to help the sick people. The invention of this costume is attributed to Charles de L’Orme, who, allegedly, was the first to wear this Custome in 1619 in Paris, and later his idea spread throughout the rest of Europe.

This hermetic suit prevented the physical contact thanks to gloves and a cane. Bad air was filtered thanks to air purifying herbs located near the nose and the mouth.

It was many years later when it was discovered that the Black Death was not transmitted through the air or physical contact, but through fleas and rat bites. Although the plague doctor’s costume was designed to prevent Bad Air, they actually also managed to avoid flea bites.

How is a plague doctor costume?

The first thing to say is that there is no any “official” plague doctor outfit. Depending on the country and region, doctors could use different types of costumes with different accessories. However, there are some common elements in all of them:

Hat: The hat was used to cover the head and prevent contagion. It was important the had was wide-brimmed to indicate the profession of the Plague Doctor. The hats of course were leather tanned and tightly tied with leather straps.

Tunic & Blouse: The tunic was made of thick waxed-canvas. It had to be from the neck to the ankle and without opening in front. Dark colors (mainly black) were used to hide blood stains, vomiting and mud.

Gloves: The gloves were made of waxed leather. They were essential to avoid contact with the sick therefore they had to be long to place them over the tunic  sleeves . Before working doctors had to make sure that the gloves didn’t have any holes or fissure.

Staff topper:

The wooden canes were used to prevent physical contact with the black death patients. With the cane they could examine the patients without touching them, turning them over, pointing out the affected areas, helping them to undress if necessary, or even using them to check their pulse. Sometimes the sick rushed to the Plague Doctor to ask for help, so it was necessary to have a good wooden cane to prevent them from touching the doctor.

Trousers: Placed above the blouse and tied to the boots to prevent exposure to Bad Air.

Boots: Plague doctors used high boots, usually made of goat leather or Moroccan leather. The boots were tied to the pants to avoid skin exposure.


Today, people wear the plague doctor mak for many reasons including Halloween and historical reenactments. The plague doctor mask is one of the most recognizable costumes in history. Once a terrifying symbol of death, today a Plague Doctor costume is increasingly a popular choice by carnival goers or as a Halloween costume.


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