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?
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.