“Belief in ghosts and apparitions is general, almost universal; possibly it is shared by the ghosts themselves” – Ambrose Bierce
Anomalists of a more judicious temperament might tell you “don’t sweat the small stuff”, but the fact that my net income from these anthropological explorations is actually negative lends itself to a certain impudence. My wife, a professional psychologist, calls it my strange, uncompensated compulsion to be a “pain in the ass in detail”, but her judgement is in question as she had the lack of insight to marry me and not leave me lo these twenty years. I like to say “lo”. It makes me feel like a Viking. Thus, it is well within my bailiwick and spectrum of neuroses to consider phantasmagoric fashion. That’s the fancy way of saying, why do ghosts always appear to us in appropriate couture? I try to be fancy, despite the fact that it ruins my Viking cred. Sadly, it’s my oeuvre. And the fact that I have an “oeuvre” proves my fanciness. This may seem like circular logic, but as Siobhan Fahey once said, “Fashion goes round in circles”, so darn it, some day I will be fashionable again despite myself and my passion for neon. So, what’s up with the sartorial splendor of your average ghost? Or, impolitely rephrased, what the hell do ghosts need clothes for?
What do we, the living, need clothes for? We didn’t always. Our hominid ancestors let it all hang out. So, nudists are kind of retro hipsters when you think about it, but until prognathic faces and occipital buns become cool, I think they’re just not committed enough. Obviously, we discovered the utility of clothing when the travel agents booked our migration out of Africa to more northerly climes, neglecting to tell us that it was the off-season, and we noticed it was a tad nippy. What’s a travel agent? Go away. You’re too young to be reading this. Clothes keep you warm. This is pretty handy during the occasional Ice Age. Of course, once we invented clothes, we quickly invented fashion critics, and it was all downhill from there (“did you see his loincloth? It’s so Denisovan”). Then we went and got all civilized and aside from protecting prized body parts in various environments, clothing became a social signal. Have you ever met a ghost? They’re not very social. In fact, dying may be one of the most anti-social things you can do. I mean, about 100 billion people have lived and died before us, and we certainly don’t see 100 billion ghosts loitering about. Seems like the vast majority of dead folks are just plain done with us mortals. Maybe we smell.
Yet, even among the relatively small sample of specters that we do encounter, exhibitionist ghosts are few and far between. I guess compounding the creepiness is overkill. And since ghosts are rare, we have to assume that should ghosts exist, they typically come dressed for the party, for as has been observed, “it is a generally received belief in ghost lore that spirits are accustomed to appear in the dresses which they wore in their lifetime—a notion credited from the days of Pliny the Younger to the present day” (Dyer, 1893, p308). The question is why? Obviously, this conundrum has been nagging at me, as I’ve previously considered the meta-issues involved in “Haunt Couture: Death Be Not Unfashionable”, but I was recently pleased to discover that curious folks were making more detailed inquiries long before I was born. Just when you think you’re asking a unique question, you find out you’re another obsessive-compulsive hack. Nonetheless, I feel like I’m carrying on the tradition. And it may be a tradition of burgeoning insanity, but we all have our hobbies. Alfred Roffe, in his speculations about ghosts in Shakespearean works, suggested it was all basically about good manners. “It is a favorite thing with Skeptics, to raise objections founded upon the Clothing of Ghosts, and shows their singular tendency to beg every question, instead of reasoning it. They never seem to consider, that even in the Natural World, Men do not use Clothing merely for Decency and Defence, which are indeed, very good reasons, and apply equally to Ghosts, admitting, only for argument’s sake, their existence. Clothing is used also for its beauty, and above all, for its great significancy. The love of Dress has a noble origin, and, at the least, it implies the desire to appear worthily” (Roffe,1851 p21).
Ambrose Bierce (who let’s note disappeared mysteriously), as always the iconoclast, pointedly asked the more practical question of how such a manifestation was possible. “Who ever heard of a naked ghost? The apparition is always said to present himself (as he certainly should) properly clothed, either ‘in his habit as he lived’ or in the apparel of the grave. Herein the witness must be at fault: whatever power of apparition after dissolution may inhere in mortal flesh and blood, we can hardly be expected to believe that cotton, silk, wool and linen have the same mysterious gift. If textile fabrics had that property they would sometimes manifest it independently, one would think—would ‘materialize’ visibly without a ghost inside, a greatly simpler apparition than ‘the grin without the cat’. Ask any proponent of ghosts if he think that the products of the loom can ‘revisit the glimpses of the moon’ after they have duly decayed, or, while still with us, can show themselves in a place where they are not. If he have no suspicion, poor man, of the trap set for him, he will pronounce the thing impossible and absurd, thereby condemning himself out of his own mouth; for assuredly such powers in these material things are necessary to the garmenting of spooks” (Bierce, 1912, p118-119).
I for one would be a tad more disconcerted by an independently manifesting pair of socks than a full-bodied apparition, but it does lend itself to an explanation for where all those missing socks go as they vanish from the laundry. Needless to say, most would be struck with abject fear were they to encounter the suit they wore to homecoming in the 1980’s.
Victorian materialists, to pardon the pun, were understandably incredulous. “The clothes we wear on our bodies become part and parcel of our souls? And as it is clearly impossible for spirits to wear dresses made of the materials of the earth, we should like to know if there are spiritual-outfitting shops for the clothing of ghosts who pay visits on earth, and if empty, haunted houses are used for this purpose, in the same way as the establishments, and after the manner of ‘Moses and Son,’ or ‘Hyam Brothers’, or such like houses of business, or if so, then there must be also the spirit of woolen cloth, the spirit of leather, the spirit of a coat, the spirit of boots and shoes. There must also be the spirit of trousers, spirits of gaiters, waistcoats, neckties, spirits of buckles, for shoes and knees; spirit of buttons, ‘bright gilt buttons;’ spirits of hats, caps, bonnets, gowns, and petticoats; spirits of hoops and crinoline, and stockings. Yes; only think of the ghosts of stockings, but if the ghost of a lady had to make her appearance here, she could not present herself before company without her shoes and stockings, so there must be ghosts of stockings” (Cruikshank, 1864, p26).
Sir Oliver Lodge offered a tentative explanation for the mechanism of ghosts manifesting clothes. “I do not pretend to understand them [materializations], but, if ever genuine and objective, they may after all represent only a singular and surprising modification of a known power of life. Somewhat as a mollusk, or a crustacean, or a snail can extract material from the water or from its surroundings wherewith to make a shell, or a closer analogy—just as an animal can assimilate the material of its food and convert it into muscle, or hair, or skin, or bone, or feathers—a process of the utmost marvel, but nevertheless an everyday occurrence—so I could conceive it possible, if the evidence were good enough, that some other intelligence or living entity, not ordinarily manifest to our senses, though possibly already in constant touch with our physical universe by reason of possessing what may be called an ethereal body, could for a time utilize the terrestrial particles which come in its way, and make for itself a sort of material structure, capable of appealing to our ordinary senses. The thing is extremely unlikely, but it is not altogether unimaginable” (De Vesme & Finch, 1906, p130).
Ghosts akin to mollusks is a new concept to me, but there is a certain appeal to the idea that we’re all floating around in the universe sucking up resources and producing trivial things like proper attire. At least make a pearl or something.
As it turns out, ghost attire was a rather controversial subject, and the leading luminaries of Victorian spiritualism spent some time elaborating theories as to why ghosts never appeared in the buff. “The question of the apparel worn by apparitions has of late years aroused considerable controversy. Says Mr. Podmore: ‘The apparition commonly consists simply of a figure, clothed as the percipient was accustomed to see the agent clothed; whereas to be true to life the phantasm would as a rule have to appear in bed. In cases where the vision gives no information as to the agent’s clothing and surroundings generally—and, as already said, such cases form the great majority of the well attested narratives—we may suppose that what is transmitted is not any part of the superficial content of the agent’s consciousness, but an impression from the underlying massive and permanent elements which represent his personal identity. The percipient’s imagination is clearly competent to clothe such an impression with appropriate imagery, must indeed so clothe it if it is to rise into consciousness at all. The ghosts, it will have been observed, always appear clothed” (Spence, 1920, p132).
We certainly establish an identity, or at least telegraph our desired identity through our manner of dress, thus it would not be entirely unreasonable for disembodied consciousness to seek out and display that which they most closely associate with their personal brand. Other theories suggested that ghost clothing may just be an interaction of the observer and the observed. Nobody wants to see grandma in her skivvies.
“The first theory is that an apparition is a thought-image which has actually taken temporary form in the inter-atomic ether. If atoms are ether under altered conditions, there is nothing unreasonable in assuming that the free, non-atomic ether may yield more readily to the control of individual minds than the bound atomic ether, and that, by thought, intelligent beings may form in this medium images of themselves. Such images may be projected on the retina and be seen by the same process that other objects are seen. This is one theory of apparitions. The other theory is that the process is primarily telepathic, that the discarnate being transmits direct to the mind of the percipient a memory-image of himself, clothed as he was wont to be clothed. This may be so vividly visualized as to appear to be exteriorized, or this effect may possibly be produced by a reversal of the ordinary mode of vision” (Fiske, 1906, p43).
One wonders if ghosts are subject to fashion trends. Sure, you died in the 17th Century, but tastes have evolved. If I was a ghost, I would keep abreast of the popular current fashions, maybe replacing the Pilgrim hat and breeches with a fedora and zoot suit. Or perhaps ghosts just don’t care, being dead and all, shedding all those worldly concerns. Maybe all those basic black shadow people are just dead New Yorkers. But, in the end, ghosts may be more about style, than fashion, for as Yves Saint Laurent said, “Fashions fade, style is eternal”.
Bierce, Ambrose, 1842-1914?. The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, v9. New York, 1912.
Cruikshank, George, 1792-1878. A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: With a Rap At the “spirit-rappers.”. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1864.
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Fiske, Mark. “The Clothing of Apparitions”. Rider’s Review v4. London, 1906.
Roffe, Alfred Thomas, 1803-1871. An Essay Upon the Ghost Belief of Shakespeare. London: Hope, 1851.
De Vesme, Cesar & Finch, Laura, eds. “The Clothing of Ghosts”. The Annals of Psychical Science v4. London: Office of the Annals, 1906.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. An Encyclopædia of Occultism: a Compendium of Information On the Occult Sciences, Occult Personalities, Psychic Science, Magic, Demonology, Spiritism And Mysticism. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1920.