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  • Spectral Matter:The Afterlife of Clothes in the Nineteenth-Century Ghost Story
  • Aviva Briefel (bio)

For victorian skeptics, one of the most compelling arguments against a belief in ghosts was that when ghosts appeared, they were usually clothed, often in the latest fashions. As Shane McCorristine explains, the issue of spectral clothing became a “multifaceted and multi-discursive” (100) debate in the nineteenth century, due in large part to then-recent shifts in the image of ghosts:

While ghosts had been associated in the popular mind with the apparel of white linen or deathly shrouds along with accessories such as clanking chains and preternatural lighting, with the advent of detailed investigations into the personal testimony of ghost-seers from the Enlightenment onwards, it soon became clear that the descriptions of the clothing and appearance of apparitions did not differ from contemporary fashion.


The rising popularity of spiritualism and spirit photography throughout the century solidified the idea that ghosts possessed their own material culture, consisting of the fashions and props they brought with them during their visitations.1 The illustrator George Cruikshank makes elaborate fun of this confluence of intangible ghosts and material things in his pamphlet A Discovery Concerning Ghosts (1863). Deriding the custom of depicting ghosts’ clothing in intricate detail, he writes,

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. … 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.

(26; emphasis in original) (see fig. 1)

For Cruikshank and others, the absurdity of speculations about spectral clothing is enough to disqualify a belief in ghosts altogether: “As ghosts cannot, must not, dare not, for decency’s sake, appear without clothes; and as there can [End Page 67] be no such thing as ghosts or spirits of clothes, why, then, it appears that ghosts never did appear, and never can appear, at any rate not in the way in which they have been hitherto supposed to appear” (25).2

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Fig 1.

Illustration by George Cruikshank. A Discovery Concerning Ghosts: 26.

Courtesy of Bowdoin College Library, Brunswick, Maine.

Cruikshank satirizes ghost stories for their incongruous materiality, through which concrete things seem to take precedence over spirits themselves. He mocks the specificity of depictions of spectral clothing, which ranged from the visual intricacies of a “black velvet gown” (4) to the tactile sensations afforded by fabric and to the auditory effect of the “rustling of a silk dress” (14). Other writers echoed this humorous outrage over the absurdity of [End Page 68] spectral clothing on and off the page, commenting on the historical specificity observed by ghosts: “A modern spectre would no more think of dressing in blue armour and carrying a truncheon than a man of fashion would think of strolling down Pall Mall in sandals and a toga” (“Latest Thing in Ghosts” 100). In other permutations, ghosts do choose to wear clothes that were in fashion during their own historical periods. As the spectre in Grant Allen’s humorous story “Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost” (1884) elucidates, “We continue always to wear the clothes which were in fashion at the time of our decease; … we must have something to mark our original period. Besides, most people to whom we appear know something about costume” (329–30). Here, wearing period costume serves as a courtesy to ghost-seers, who can then accurately date the spectre.

The complex interactions between intangible spectres and concrete clothing become a rich site of inquiry in the nineteenth-century ghost story, a genre that was deeply informed by realist conventions despite its supernatural subject matter.3 Given their association with literary verisimilitude, clothes are central to this enterprise; as Catherine Waters writes, “Clothing has long been recognized as a key element used by nineteenth-century novelists to achieve that ‘solidity of specification...


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pp. 67-88
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