Today is ‘Take Your Pants for a Walk Day’. Which got me thinking that it would be really creepy and disturbing to see a pair of pants wandering around on it’s own. I’ll spare you the convolutions of my mind but I finally ended up at killer outfits. Literally.
The idea of killer clothing goes back a long, long time. Back to the time of Hercules. Probably even farther if you were to dig deeper. When Nessus offered to carry Hercules’ wife, Deianira, across the river he tried to rape her. Hercules shot him from across the river with the same arrows he had dipped in the blood of the Hydra, thus poisoning Nessus’ blood. Nessus told Deianira to take some of his blood and if Hercules ever strayed, to drip some blood on one of Hercules’ shirts and it would win back his love. Why she would believe a pervy centaur is beyond me. Anyways, Hercules started to wander, Deianira dripped the blood and Hercules was slowly poisoned to death.
For a long time clothing was hand-sewn, mainly using natural dyes. Mostly they were safe. However, when the Industrial Revolution came the manufacturing of clothing got dangerous. Chemicals were used often, the manufacturing process was often dangerous in and of itself, particularly when combined with the clothing styles of the time.
Some jobs themselves were dangerous. The term “Mad as a Hatter” was believed to have come from the Mercury poisoning that hatters worked with. Arsenic poisoning was also common using arsenic to create a very particular, brilliant shade of green. Ballerinas were also susceptible to their tutus catching on fire. After the death of one famous Danseur Noble the safety leagues tried to ban the use of tutus. Their response? “We’d rather burn than dance without our tutus.”
I could go on and on about real life examples but what fun is reality?
Urban legends have long dealt with clothing being the main part of the tale. If not the cause of death itself then the signifier that something ghostly or horrific has taken place. Two well-known tales deal directly with clothing. I’m sure you’ve heard of the bride dramatically dropping dead at the altar and upon inspection it is revealed that the dress had been used in a burial and resold. Wedding dresses often figure in other tales of brides tripping on their fine dresses and falling down the stairs.
My favorite has always been The Ghostly Hitch-Hiker. The different versions are varied but the basic story is this: A young man on his way to a party sees a beautiful young woman in a white dress walking by the road. He picks her up and they continue on to the party. The young lady is dazzling and popular at the party and while walking out to the car the young man gives the girl his coat because she is cold. He drops her off, usually near a dilapidated house or graveyard. The next day he remembers his coat and goes back for it. He finds that the girl has died some time ago (usually having been hit by a car walking home from a dance) and his jacket is neatly folded on her gravestone.
Fiction touches rarely on clothing. Perhaps it doesn’t seem fearsome enough. Usually when it does it is in short story form so it would be far too hard to track them all down. Although I dearly wish I could, it seems like such an underused device. I’ve always thought it was creepy. Enchanted clothing dominates fantasy. How many times have we heard of enchanted (or cursed) boots, corsets, dresses, gloves and even shoes? Where are their horror counterparts? There have been plenty of evil, cursed or haunted inanimate objects from dolls to guitars. Haunted houses are popular because what is more scary than the place you reside in, your protection from the world, suddenly being turned against you?
Consider clothing. It is one of the most intimate things you own. You put it on your body for decoration, as protection against the elements and to cover nakedness. What could be more frightening that the most intimate articles of clothing turned against you?
When I was twelve I read a book called The Prom Dress by Lael Littke. This book absolutely terrified me. Keep in mind that by this point I had read Carrie (who had prom dress issues of her own), The Shining and others. But the thought of a dress that hurt it’s wearer in very particular ways. A girl who’s only love was dance (and her young, handsome dance teacher) falls and loses the use of her legs. Another girl, secretly vain of her looks, is disfigured in a freak accident. All while wearing the cursed dress. All these years later (never mind how many) it still lurks in my mind. In fact, the first time I put on a certain dress vintage from the twenties (my one luxuriant dress purchase in my whole life), I was very hesitant. It actually made me nervous to put it on. That was the power of that damn teen horror book.
Largely popular in fairy tales it has faded somewhat from modern day horror. But there was a time when clothing was fearsome in it’s own right and I’m not just talking about Cinderella’s sisters chopping off their toes to fit the glass slipper. Hans Christian Anderson was a Danish writer of fairy tales. Best known for The Little Mermaid (which is dark itself) he had a few things to say about clothing himself and the consequences of being a wee bit too proud of them. There’s ‘The Emperor’s New Suit’, a story about being fashionably but nakedly dressed. They are typically used as analogies to life and their usual lesson is pretty basic. Don’t be presumptuous and don’t be a jerk. Among some of his stories are ‘The Galoshes’, ‘The Boot-Jack’, ‘The Shirt-Collar’,
The two that terrified me were ‘The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf’ and ‘The Red Shoes’. In ‘The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf‘ a young girl, working for a wealthy family is vain and prideful. Her mistress sends Inge home to visit her mother. But on seeing her mother so poor Inge is ashamed of her and leaves without speaking to her. The next year her mistress sends her home again, this time sending a large wheat loaf I assumed bread but it could mean a bundle of grain, I suppose) to take to her mother. As she is approaching the village, rather than cross a puddle and get her dainty feet and the hem of her frock dirty, she steps on the wheat loaf to cross the puddle. However, she sinks down into the puddle and straight to Hell where she is berated for putting her own vanity above her mother’s needs.
‘The Red Shoes’ is probably the more well-known of the two. There has been a movie loosely based on it (The Red Shoes – 1948) and a ballet. A girl is very proud of her lovely red shoes, to the point that she is inattentive in church. A soldier comments on them in passing and she does a few dance steps to show off. But when she tries to stop, her shoes just keep dancing. soon they sweep her across the country-side, dancing continuously. She begs a woodcutter to help her and he chops the shoes off, along with her feet, which go dancing away into the night. The girl resides with the woodcutter and his family until her death. While it’s basically a religious themed story the thought of being unable to control your feet and to dance constantly, no matter how weary you are, was freaking terrifying to me when I was younger. To tell the truth, that story still creeps me out. Just the thought of the shoes off dancing by themselves with chopped off feet inside of them is a pretty gruesome image.
Hopefully the idea of killer or haunted clothing comes back strong as I think it can be a creepy subject like no other and has a lot of unexplored possibilities. So treat your clothing with care or else they just might revolt on you. And you might want to be very careful where your vintage clothing comes from.
If anyone knows of any that I’ve missed, whether it’s in short stories, movies and novels, please let me know in the comments below! I’ve also added a list of some further reading at the end. Just click on the title and it will take you either to the story itself, YouTube or Goodreads.
The Lavender Evening Dress – A Graveyard of Ghost Tales read by Vincent Price
Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present by Alison Matthews David (I highly recommend it.)