“Art produces ugly things which frequently become more beautiful with time. Fashion, on the other hand, produces beautiful things which always become ugly with time” – Jean Cocteau
Many people (mostly my wife, at least to my face) have accused me of being a fashion victim, but much to their annoyance, I like to point out that as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything”. You see, nine out of ten doctors agree that I’m still alive, and as long as I’m alive, there is hope that I will inadvertently stumble upon an appropriate fashion sense, unless I prematurely reach my expiration date (I often assume that regardless of my actual cause of death, my tombstone will read “In a bizarre set of circumstances…”), in which case eternity will likely be spent in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt, or alternatively the go-to ghost garb of a white sheet. The tenth doctor is actually my personal physician and thus acutely aware of my self-destructive habits. I make these assumptions because the prevailing theories of ghost couture suggest that either (a) as some sort of recording of an event in the ether, ghosts are wearing the clothes they wore when they departed this mortal coil (b) ghosts, as non-corporeal and creatures associated with aberrant electromagnetism, could hardly be anything else but wispy and white, besides which that was a popular color for burial shrouds for the past few hundred years, or (c) ghosts are the conscious reflection of the deceased’s self-image, and one hardly pictures oneself strutting around the afterlife in the buff. In most circumstances anyway. With seventy-two virgins loitering about, it’s probably more efficient to remain disrobed.
While we can eliminate sheet-draped specters as an artifact of Western traditions of burying the poor in white shrouds (coffins have always been and remain fairly expensive) and the theatrical need to decisively identify ghosts on stage, this begs the question of what fashionable phantasms are generally caught wearing. Presumably ghosts don’t have much choice in apparel, otherwise we would likely be routinely encountering a wide range of undead fashion faux pas (what’s the plural of “pas”?). Frankly, if you’re dead, it’s the perfect time to experiment with your personal style. My post-life repertoire would no doubt include a variety of Hawaiian shirts and board shorts, as my goal would be to avoid scaring anyone unduly. Yet strangely, more often than not, when we see a ghost (I’m not talking orbs and shadows here which seem to just be cosmic dust starving for attention), it is wearing recognizable period costume. What’s more is that if you take a decent sample of sightings from any given time period, the ghost is never dressed in attire that has a reference beyond the 200-300 year past range, and generally at least 100 years old.
Take American ghosts for example. Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers are a popular theme. Slaves and former slaves. Lots of folks in vaguely Victorian dress. Our ghosts, at least the ones that will obligingly pose for photographs and have the courtesy to embody a human shape tend in the aggregate to center around a restricted time period, not closer in time to us than 100 years, and not distant from us by more than 300 years. Since we estimate that about 108 billion people have lived and died since Homo sapiens clambered down from the trees and got busy travelling, it’s puzzling that our ghosts are usually from such a restrictive sample. You don’t frequently see blurry Native American ghost photos or spectral Clovis culture hunter-gatherers chasing down phantom mammoth. And where are all the Neanderthal ghosts? They ought to be pissed and looking to haunt. Similarly, in Europe, one almost never encounters the ghost of a Roman centurion, despite the fact that those pesky legions were literally everywhere for a thousand years. And how many Visigoth or Vandal phantoms get reported?
Skeptics who disbelieve in stuff like ghosts, monsters, strange phenomena, and probably pre-marital sex often point to this curious fact of ghost fashion (that is, a very limited time range from which ghosts appear relative to the current time reference) as proof that ghosts don’t exist or are figments of our imagination. This is of course, the boring interpretation that maintains that people who see ghosts are hallucinating or hoaxing, and in doing so are working with a recognizable standard of “old-timey” dress to telegraph the idea that a creepy person in a photo is not supposed to be loitering about. While I admittedly prefer to start from the assumption that the human race is crazy, I see no reason to be so presumptuous as to maintain that they are also liars or so unimaginative as to only be able to see ghosts of a particular restricted time period. Nonetheless, when we see an anthropomorphic ghost, it most often fits comfortably into a tight little temporal reference. Based on this, I would like to propose that ghosts have a “best-if-used-by” date, just like a carton of eggs. It’s not that you can’t see a ghost that doesn’t appear in garb from the past 100-300 years, its simply that any closer, and ghost style looks too much like our own, and any further and we are not commonly familiar with what was fashionable. Although, these days a ghost could appear in literally anything and we’d just shrug and look around for TV cameras. Let’s face it, if you have to be dead, you probably don’t want to be both dead and unfashionable, therefore once your antiquated style of dress has lapsed into the gauche, odds are you just fade away. As Coco Chanel said, “Fashion is made to become unfashionable”.