Fashions, After All, Are Only Induced Epidemics

George Bernard Shaw? Gloria Steinem? W.H. Auden? Leo Rosten? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A style, jingle, gif, graffito, saying, or idea that rapidly mutates and propagates through a culture and achieves popularity is called a “meme” nowadays. The coinage of “meme” was based on “gene”, but a different biological metaphor was employed in the past. Here are two statements that have been attributed to the influential playwright George Bernard Shaw.

  • Fashions are induced epidemics.
  • A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.

Would you please help me to find a citation together with the correct phrasing?

Quote Investigator: George Bernard Shaw’s play “The Doctor’s Dilemma” was first staged in 1906. Shaw published the text of the play combined with a preface in 1911. A section of the preface titled “Fashions and Epidemics” cogently discussed fads in clothing and in medical procedures: 1

A demand, however, can be inculcated. This is thoroughly understood by fashionable tradesmen, who find no difficulty in persuading their customers to renew articles that are not worn out and to buy things they do not want. By making doctors tradesmen, we compel them to learn the tricks of trade; consequently we find that the fashions of the year include treatments, operations, and particular drugs, as well as hats, sleeves, ballads, and games.

Tonsils, vermiform appendices, uvulas, even ovaries are sacrificed because it is the fashion to get them cut out, and because the operations are highly profitable. The psychology of fashion becomes a pathology; for the cases have every air of being genuine: fashions, after all, are only induced epidemics, proving that epidemics can be induced by tradesmen, and therefore by doctors.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1949 the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” reviewed a book titled “The Quintessence of G. B. S.”, and the reviewer reprinted many Shaw quotations from the book including the following: 2

Fashions, after all, are only induced epidemics, proving that epidemics can be induced by tradesmen.

In 1965 the well-known feminist Gloria Steinem wrote a piece in “The New York Times” that began with a different version of the saying: 3

“Fashion,” said George Bernard Shaw, “is nothing more than an induced epidemic.” If that is so, the carriers of the moment are no longer the basic black ladies of Park Avenue . . .

In 1966 “The Viking Book of Aphorisms” compiled by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger included a compact version: 4

A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic. SHAW

In 1986 quotation collector Robert Byrne included an instance in his series of books presenting “The Best Things Anybody Ever Said”: 5

Fashions are induced epidemics.
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

In 1996 “Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen” included a version: 6

The most effective wit casts a sudden and surprising (and usually cynical) light on familiar subjects. Consider the following gem:

Fashions are induced epidemics. —George Bernard Shaw

In conclusion, George Bernard Shaw should receive credit for the statement he wrote in the preface of “The Doctor’s Dilemma” in 1911. During the ensuing decades a few closely related variant statements were attributed to Shaw.

Image Notes: Illustration of a variety of dresses from Kaz at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1911, The Doctor’s Dilemma with Preface on Doctors by Bernard Shaw, Fashions and Epidemics, Start Page lxxii, Quote Page lxxii, Brentano’s, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1949 November 20, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Gems from Shaw’s Wit and Wisdom From “The Quintessence of G. B. S.,” Edited by Stephen Winsten, Quote Page 2B, Column 4, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1965 January 31, The New York Times, Gernreich’s Progress; Or, Eve Unbound by Gloria Steinem, Start Page SM18, Quote Page SM18, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1966, The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection, Compiled by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger (Wystan Hugh Auden), Quote Page 126, Published by Viking Press New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1986, The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 61, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) link
  6. 1996 (1994 Copyright), Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen, Compiled by Leo Rosten, Section: Preface, Quote Page 3, Plume: Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)