Designing clothes for the dead has been described as “a relatively new industry”. However, it may not have been an industry in terms of fashion, but dressing the dead with reverence and care, usually in their favourite attire, has long been a part of cultural mores and history the world over. Closer to our times, when Princess Diana died in 1997, her body was clothed for the burial in a black long-sleeved dress which she had chosen some time before her death. The black dress was designed by Catherine Walker, the iconic fashion designer who had dressed Princess Diana for nearly two decades and created more than 1,000 outfits for her. A set of rosary beads, a gift Diana had received from Mother Teresa was placed in Diana’s hands. Coincidentally, Mother Teresa died the same week as Diana.
In India, much before Diana’s death, the former Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was cremated wearing a favourite saree and the rare 108 bead one mukhi rudraksha mala gifted to her by well known spiritualist Anandmayi Ma. Many will also recall the favourite saree in which Jayalalithaa, the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and cine actress was dressed for her burial in 2016. In fact, in almost every family, care is usually taken to dress a loved one who has died in the deceased person’s favourite attire. The link between death and clothes is obviously more than just symbolic and in the majority of cases death does not sever the link with clothes. My grandmother, who had died and returned from the dead with her actual time of death, had very carefully chosen and worn a favourite silk suit, a finely embroidered dupatta and embroidered jooties on the day of her death. She had given clear instructions that she was to be cremated in them. Clearly, the attachment to clothes seems to transcend the transition from life to death.
In my last column, I had written about Betty DuPont, director of Paranormal Investigators of New England who awoke one night to an apparition of a short man in an overcoat standing next to her bed. As to why an overcoat and not say, lederhosen, DuPont had a theory and some intriguing observations. DuPont says ghosts wear neither what they died in nor what they were buried in. They wear the clothes that feel most closely attached to their identity in life. “Ghosts are projecting themselves in the way that they last perceived themselves. Even if they burnt in a fire or they died in surgery, they still appear wearing clothing because that’s how they best knew themselves,” said DuPont.
Sydney Parker has written that ghosts in clothes have inspired some eerie clothing designs like Dead Castle Project. A Sydney-based label, it is well known for combining a variety of styles in their collections from surf to skate to grunge. Featuring “plenty of black, the models in the graveyards appear disinterested and unperturbed by the fact that they are surrounded by dead bodies inches beneath the surface”.
Parker also writes of fashion designer Pia Interlandi who has built a unique career in Melbourne, Australia designing for the dead. “Through her practice, Garments for the Grave, she creates custom biodegradable burial garments for the deceased and for clients who are preparing for death”. She describes her fashion philosophy as one that, “neither denies nor flirts with death, but presents it in a way that invites observers to view it as natural, undeniable, inevitable and at times, beautiful.” She began experimenting with dissolvable fabrics as a method of exploring life’s transience and views clothing as a second skin. It seems Interlandi investigates the role that fashion can play at the end of life, but unfortunately for us, not in the afterlife. “Once the deceased is buried underground, the garments break down and become part of the earth, along with the naked human form.”
Marie and Jay Yates are founders of The Crossing Over Paranormal Society, an Arizona based team of paranormal investigators. Yates believes that our clothes take on our emotional energy. “I’m very fashionable, I love clothes,” said Yates. “But even if you’re not into fashion—we wear these clothes every day through pain, suffering, happiness, heartache. Some women appear in their wedding dresses because it was one of the happiest moments of their life.”
In Georgia, USA, Heather Dobson and her team Paranormal Georgia Investigations want to “ease your fears with fact, not fiction.” Parker reveals that while investigating historic artifacts from the Titanic exhibit, Dobson spotted ghosts in woolen, tailored suits characteristic of the early 1900s. She herself smelled the strong scent of old-timey men’s cologne, despite an absence of male investigators. She believes that ghosts manifest themselves wearing the clothes they were most comfortable wearing in life. “If I end up haunting this place, it’s definitely going to be in a t-shirt and jeans,” said Dobson.
DuPont too has reflected, “the clothing that is coming out now, is going to be what ghosts are wearing in the future. The designers that are designing now, their designs will live on for eternity.” But what about those In India, for instance, who die in hospitals or nursing homes in metros and other large urban centres? Increasingly, there is a trend that instead of bringing a dead person home, the person is taken straight from the mortuary to the cremation ground. Of course, care is taken at the facility where they have died to bathe the dead body and wrap it in a clean white shroud but generally the favourite attire concept is abandoned. Does this have any impact on the link between favourite clothes in this life and an after life?
The answers to this intriguing question are fascinating. However, from the majority of accounts it would appear that for ghosts clothing is as essential as it is for us the living. Parker himself says, “What we do know is that how we choose to dress is deeply entwined with our sense of identity. And depending on who you are, that identity might to roam the earth for all of eternity in a pair of baggy sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt or fancy shoes and a stylish hat. It’s never too early to start dressing for the afterlife.” Incidentally, talking of textiles in the afterlife, somebody said tongue-in-cheek that ghost clothing would be the first natural fibre never to bio-degrade—really, really degrade completely and utterly.