Guest Post: Ellen Byerrum

The Magical Mystical Properties of Clothes

Do you believe in the magic of clothes? Do good things always seem to happen when you wear certain clothes? Or do you have clothes you avoid because something always seems to go wrong when you wear them?veiledrevenge

I was toying with these ideas while I was writing my latest Crime of Fashion Mystery, Veiled Revenge. Fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian discovers that being her friend Stella’s maid of honor is a killer of a job. But love may save the day, and Stella and her fiancé Nigel might still make it all the way down the aisle—if murder, mayhem and a haunted Russian shawl don’t get them first.

I wanted to write about haunted clothing, but in my research I wasn’t finding much about that kind of phenomena. On the hunt for ghost stories or anecdotes or even stories and movies involving clothes, I found very few, and of those, virtually all were fictitious. Ghosts hang around bridges and houses and cemeteries and castles, among any number of locations, but apparently, they don’t hang out in old clothes.

And then something magical happened. No, I didn’t discover spirit-infested clothing in my own vintage closet, but I hooked up with some terrific women at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and was able to peek into the costume collection in the “nation’s closet,” which has over 30,000 items of American clothing, some reaching as far back as the dawn of this country. I figured if anyone had heard about that type of phenomena it would be the Smithsonian. And my trip there felt enchanted.

Several of their clothing experts graciously allowed me a couple of hours for interviews and to marvel over some vintage dresses and gowns. However, they had no stories of haunted clothes, except one woman remembered an intern who became depressed whenever she touched the clothes of Clover Adams. A celebrated hostess in 19th century Washington, D.C., Clover, the wife of Henry Adams, eventually committed suicide and is buried in Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery. Visitors today remember her for the enigmatic and haunting statue (popularly known as “Grief”) which her husband commissioned from sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens for her grave. But whether the clothes retained some vestige of her grieving spirit, or whether the intern was simply saddened by thoughts of the tragic Clover Adams when she handled her clothes, we’ll never know.

But that’s how clothes can affect us. We can attribute powers to them. Whether with a red dress that catches a man’s eye or a pair of “lucky” socks that help a pitcher throw a perfect game, both men and women can play this game.

Ultimately I believe clothes can affect us for good or bad, because of the feelings we bring to them. I once knew a woman who worked at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington, D.C., who told me about an outfit she had worn several times. Each time she did, something terrible happened. It was a flattering outfit, and she tried to put the negative associations out of her mind. One day, she was going to wear it to the hospital to visit her husband who was in the hospital. Her teenage daughter took one look at her and said, “You can’t wear that! Do you want to kill Daddy?!” (There are no job safety rules for haunted clothing!) The woman put on something else.

At any rate, I decided to create own haunted garment for Veiled Revenge, making it an elaborate embroidered Russian shawl. Why Russian? Maybe because I took a terrific Russian history course in high school. Or because I saw some extravagant Russian altar cloths made of black velvet with silver and gold needlework at the Hillwood Museum in Washington. Or because I have a sometimes-spooky Russian character in my books, Gregor Kepelov, ex-KGB spy, who is woven through the Crime of Fashion mysteries. The Russian shawl has practically become its own character in the book. It is not a typical shawl, block-printed, from one of the mills. It was made by an ancestor of Kepelov who worked in one of the shawl factories, a woman who embroidered the pattern, the roses and leaves, but also stitched stories into the shawl, in tiny pictures between the roses.

But is it haunted? And does it have magical powers? That’s what fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian has to figure out, in order to solve the mystery of Veiled Revenge.

***

Ellen Byerrum is a novelist, playwright, former Washington, D.C., journalist, and a graduate of private investigator school in Virginia. Her Crime of Fashion mysteries star a savvy, stylish female sleuth named Lacey Smithsonian, a reluctant fashion reporter in Washington D.C. In the course of researching her mysteries, Byerrum has acquired her own collection of 1940s vintage dresses, suits, and the occasional accessory, but laments her lack of closet space. Although she currently resides in Denver, Colorado, fashion reporter Lacey Smithsonian will continue to be based in Washington, “The City Fashion Forgot.” Veiled Revenge is the ninth book in the series.

You can find more about Ellen on her Web site (www.ellenbyerrum.com) or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/EllenByerrum).

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17 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ellen Byerrum”

  1. Thanks for stopping by, Ellen. A haunted Russian shawl sounds intriguing (all that old Russian stuff is intriguing – so much mythology and folklore in old Russian culture). I wrote a story centering around a baseball player and a pair of lucky socks, so you’re right – we do have odd feelings about clothing. I don’t have anything particular, myself. Well, I know if I wear white I’m bound to spill something on it – but I don’t know if that has more to do with the clothing or my lack of coordination!

  2. In college I had a seemingly innocuous black and white paisley polo shirt. Whenever I wore it (or my roommate borrowed it) strange things happened! I don’t know what happened to the shirt, but if it had special powers, they belong to someone else now. I love the concept of haunted clothing. Adds an extra level of mystique to the perfect (or not-so-perfect) garment.

    Thanks for visiting Mysteristas!

  3. Your trip to the Smithsonian sounds wonderful. I love the idea of haunted clothes or at least clothes with some spell or other that cause something to happen.

  4. Thanks so much for visiting us, Ellen! Fabulous post.

    This happens to be one of my research areas too, so I’ll mention two texts that might be particularly interesting: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood and “The Romance of Certain Old Clothes” by Henry James. Both have (potentially) ghostly activity connected to clothing. I’m always recommending Alias Grace to people as a great read in general–it also has mystery elements, plus it’s based on a real murder. *shivers*

    I have enjoyed all the Crime of Fashion books and can’t wait to read Veiled Revenge! And how cool that the Smithsonian had the material you needed for Lacey Smithsonian. Especially since she has to explain about her last name in the series a lot. 😉

  5. I love hearing stories of everyone’s clothes and their magical properties, like your polo shirt, Diane. Any examples of its strangeness?

    My trip to the Smithsonian was eye-opening, not because of ghosts but because the overwhelming collection. I’d often been tot he museum, but never behind the scenes before. Mary, I agree completely about white, I think the color has power, it’s a stain sucker! That’s why I avoid white shirts, which many people love. I have heard about the lucky socks thing with men, and they say they don’t care about clothes. Many of them anyway.

    And Cynthia, ashamed to say I haven’t read the Atwood or the James, but they are on my list now. I have read the story of a bride’s haunted Kimono by Lafcadio Hearn.

    I recently had the strangest feeling when I wore a black vintage suit. I thought, “this suit really calls for Chanel Number Five.” I never had that desire before and the scent is a bit overpowering and I only associated it with the suit.

  6. How exciting! I’m really looking forward to reading this book. And I’m quite envious of the Smithsonian research time. How lovely to speak with those folks, and see the treasures. I can’t say I’ve had any mysterious clothing experiences, but I did have a boss with a “get the team a raise” dress–it seemed to work.

  7. I haven’t read the haunted Kimono story–thanks so much for mentioning it! Will add that to my list.

    That vintage suit story is eerie! And, wow, it just reminded me about one time I wanted to buy a beautiful beaded vintage jacket, but when I put it on, I felt extremely dizzy and hot, almost flu-like. Put it back, wandered around the store awhile and ended up back at the jacket so I tried it on again and instantly another weird wave coursed through me–almost like a fever or a rage. Didn’t buy it (and didn’t come down with the flu either!). So strange. Maybe someone didn’t want me to have her jacket… 😉

  8. Sadly, I’ve never had a dress that inspired a raise, but that indeed would be fantastic!
    It! I’d definitely hold on to something like that. I’ve had clothes I just feel great in, and worn them to shreds. Or is that threads?

    The vintage beaded jacket: definitely haunted, Cynthia. I suppose some people might say it had some kind of chemical, perhaps the dregs of a bad perfume, in it that you were reacting to (hmmm, another plot), but I like to think you avoided some bad luck, even though it was beautiful. Maybe it retained the spirit of the original owner who had gone through something traumatic.

  9. I definitely believe clothes can leave some “soul” in them… A sadness or happiness. But I do believe the person feeling the clothing projects that feeling! Love your story of the intern Ellen. And I loved Veiled Revenge!

  10. I love the idea of magical clothing! I’m writing a story about supernatural dance shoes right now and have explored similar themes before. Off the page, most of my magical clothing experiences have been in the vein of “great dress everyone says nice things when I wear it.” But there was one, very cool, graphic t-shirt that seemed to bring bad news/bad luck. I was wearing it the day a complete stranger looked me in the eye and asked me, “Why are you so fat?” And again, when I fell and broke my elbow, canceling a trip to Europe. After that, I got rid of it.

  11. Candy, I love the sound of the dance shoes story! But, wow, crazy story about the shirt. Glad you got rid of it. Now wondering if I should have paid more attention to my clothes over the years. . .

  12. I love that you took a trip to the Smithsonian to investigate haunted clothes! This sounds like a fabulous Lacey Smithsonian adventure! I am a believer in magical clothing. When I wear my lucky fishing hat, I always catch my limit of bass!

  13. Ellen has come up with a clever premise and described it well. What an imagination! I believe in lucky and unlucky clothes to be sure and may just have a closet-clearing day with her ideas in mind. But I’ll never get rid of the lucky pearls I always wear when I need a boost or am writing a tricky scene in one of my mysteries.

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