Dressed for the Plague. No, Not This One.

Young people are weathering the pandemic by posting photos of themselves in 17th-century plague-doctor outfits.

A person dressed in a 17th-century plague-doctor costume, with cartoon hearts over the eyes.
Getty / The Atlantic

Alexandra Vega calls her four pet leeches “the Squish Squad.” They eat once every six months; yes, they drink blood; and yes, she lets them feed on her body. They’re her friends! The leeches, named Chungus, Burrito, Wormitha, and Chocolate Chip, live in a fishbowl, but they’re curious about the world. “They each have their own personalities,” Vega, a 22-year-old biology student, told me. “Which a lot of people don’t expect from a leech.”

Leeches were a common medical treatment 400 years ago, which is why Vega owns them now. She’s part of a Tumblr community in which people dress up like 17th-century plague doctors and post pictures and videos of themselves online. The plague doctors, the real ones, were amateur physicians who tried to help people suffering from the bubonic plague. They wore enormous, beak-like masks that were usually filled with herbs to prevent them from smelling the “poisonous air” that caused disease. (They didn’t know about viruses.) In most images, they’re depicted wearing black robes and carrying sticks, which were used in part to keep the ill at least several feet away.

Today’s plague doctors look similar, though their masks are sometimes filled with snacks such as M&Ms or popcorn. The plague-doctor look emerged on Tumblr in the middle of 2019, Vega said, but it blew up this year after the pandemic hit. According to Tumblr, engagement with the “plague doctor” tag spiked 446 percent from January to March of this year. In the spring and summer, fashion “inspo” posts showing leather gloves, black capes, wide-brimmed hats, and, of course, beaked masks made the rounds, racking up tens of thousands of likes. Some teens have even reimagined the plague-doctor ensemble to work for a burlesque routine, or a Valentine’s Day dinner. The plague doctor appeared on Tumblr’s year-end list of the site’s biggest memes, and “plaguecore”—the name given to the whole aesthetic—is now popular on Instagram and TikTok as well.

Cosplaying is an opportunity to actively select one’s vibes, so it makes sense that it would boom in a year with uniformly bad ones. And it’s not just plaguecore that’s receiving new attention: Lots of fashion-and-fantasy trends are popular right now. Though they couldn’t be more different visually, all of them offer young people the opportunity to weather the pandemic by dressing up and posting about it.

Pandemic cosplay is an expansive genre with a low barrier to participation: All you have to do is feel alone and creative. Though Tumblr is often forgotten as an engine of internet culture, because its user base and cachet have long been eclipsed by Instagram and TikTok, it has produced all kinds of new interests for the young and bored this year. “Tumblr has been reflective of how Gen Z acts online in 2020,” Amanda Brennan, the site’s head of editorial, told me. “A lot of them have been turning to Tumblr for coping, whether it be with escapism or fantasy.”

Plaguecore is one option, but teens have found other, prettier ways to escape. The most popular aesthetic on Tumblr is “cottagecore,” a style centered around the idea of living quaintly and happily in a little house in the woods. By mid-March, cottagecore was more popular on Tumblr than Harry Styles or Marvel, according to the platform’s year-end data. In cottagecore tags on every major social-media platform, admirers of picnic baskets, sprigs of baby’s breath, patchwork quilts, and vintage teapots gather to talk about making their own clothes and baking their own bread. Taylor Swift, the only major celebrity still on Tumblr, released a cottagecore album in July and another on Friday—both marketed with allusions to fairy tales and visuals of Swift wandering in the forest with braids in her hair. You can dress up as her if you buy her cardigan or, in keeping with the style’s emphasis on the handmade, knit a knockoff yourself.

Those who prefer a good tailored pant and a slightly spookier vibe could turn to a look called dark academia. The aesthetic also exploded this year—again, first on Tumblr, then on the wider web. (On TikTok, videos tagged “dark academia” have been viewed more than 254 million times.) These young people are obsessed with the moody teenagers of Donna Tartt’s modern classic The Secret History and the architecture and outfits of elite boarding schools and British universities. They share tutorials on how to stain paper with tea before you write on it, how to thrift sweater-vests, and how to stay up all night reading something dark but enchanting. Ava Nelson, a 15-year-old student from Northern Michigan, started her dark-academia blog two years ago, after she read The Secret History, and told me that she’s gained about 50 followers each day for the past several months. “Before quarantine, no one knew what it was,” she said.

Shaniya Bethel, a 21-year-old from North Carolina, started her dark academia blog in March because she had more time to read, she told me. “I personally dress up to sit in my house, because I can’t go many places during the pandemic,” she said. “I have zero outside socialization. Everything is done through the internet.” It’s fine, because she loves poetry, writing by candlelight, and posting about it. Her blog is full of screenshots of books and photos of milk swirling into coffee.

Pandemic cosplays are visually disparate—one group is planning immaculate picnics, another is hanging out in graveyards—but they have similar functions and postures apart from simply dressing up. Many of them are romantic, as teenagers on the internet can find a way to make anything about crushes. Much of the most popular content is explicitly queer: “We read and write poetry because we are gay,” one dark-academia meme reads. A plague doctor writes: “Plaguecore is like ... i am a Doctor ..... I cannot Help .... but I must try .... also im Gay and Trans.”

These communities are also instinctually political and aspire to be inclusive. The Tumblr blogger who coined the term plaguecore wrote that the community “stresses a LGBTQA+ and POC positive attitude.” Cottagecore is explicitly anti-capitalist, and much of the community was vocally supportive of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. (It embraced one suggestion that all Confederate statues be replaced with metal sculptures of frogs.) Dark academia, which has been criticized for focusing on images of thin, rich, white people and reading only the Western canon, has internalized and responded to that criticism. Bethel posted about the representation issue in the spring, and told me that she’s been noticing a change in her Tumblr feed, which lately has more photos taken by or featuring Black creators.

What young people often get out of all this dreaming and posting isn’t just distraction, the fun of dressing up, and a temporary group of online friends, but a bigger understanding of the world. “I believe the thirst for knowledge made dark academia flourish during the pandemic,” Bethel said. “Because of quarantine, reading, writing, and the like became popular pastimes again.” Cottagecore fans learn about sustainability and self-sufficiency, as well as alternative ideas of community and success. The plague doctors are constantly winking at the fact that they don’t understand modern medicine, and that their crushes run away when they take out boxes of leeches, but they’re also gathering information about a historical moment that can teach them something about their own.

And though today’s plague doctors are thankfully not going around offering medical treatment, they still did provide something of a public service this year. Alexandra Vega’s first viral post as a plague doctor was in May, a series of photos her mom took of her pretending to eat out of a hummingbird feeder in her beaked mask. She said she didn’t expect it to blow up, but she understands what people like about the costume. “I think the appeal of plague doctors is what they represent: hope and the resilience of human kind in the face of fear,” Vega said. “They’re a symbol of humans being scared out of their minds but still trying to help others, and I think having a symbol like that is important, especially this year.”

To participate in plaguecore, you don’t have to be a “doctor” with a beak like Vega. You can just wear a cape while you’re sitting at home. Or carry stuff in a vintage medical bag instead of a tote and “always speak at a low volume.” Or join a Facebook group for people with pet leeches. Or take a walk at nighttime, holding a satchel of lavender. According to one definition of plaguecore, really all you have to do to take part in the culture is live in the year 2020.