Phantom fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?

Phantom Fashion: why do ghosts wear clothes?

“Ghosts commonly appear in the same dress they usually wore whilst living; though they are sometimes clothed all in white; but that is chiefly the churchyard ghosts.” (Francis Grose, 1787)

Just how do you account for ghosts clothing? A disarmingly simple – yet vexed – question that has been debated for centuries by both sceptics and believers. If ghosts are supposed to represent the spirit or eternal essence of a human being, why, then, do they need to appear in something so prosaic as clothing or the ubiquitous white sheet? I mean, have you ever heard of anyone saying they saw the ghost of their dearly departed grandma – naked?

Naked ghosts

Naked ghosts are rare in the UK – it must be the weather. However, there are some examples, often with Medieval or early modern origin.

In Rochester a Medieval tale tells of the ghost of a priest who appeared to witnesses shivering and naked. His state of undress was important because his spectre had a message for the living – it wished to symbolise how his estate had been stripped bare by his corrupt executors. [1]

Image from an exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery. Photo by Lenora.

A tale that circulated in London between the 15-18th Centuries, concerned the fate of five condemned men. In 1447 the men were said to have been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – a particularly grisly fate. Once hanged, the five were cut down from the hanging tree and stripped in preparation for the gruesome denuemont of their punishment. Their clothing was distributed to the gaping crowds. An added twist in the tale lends poignancy to their fate by claiming that a pardon arrived just too late to save them from their deaths.

Railing at the injustice and humiliation of their execution, the unhappy spirits were said to have risen up from their corporeal bodies in a misty vapour. The ghosts accosted the crowd demanding their clothes be returned and then fled. The tale persisted for around three hundred years, with occasional reports of five ghostly naked men importuning startled strangers apparently still seeking the return of their clothing – and presumably their dignity.[2]

Scotland, too, has reports of naked ghosts. In 1592, Agnes Sampson was accused of witchcraft, tortured and burned at the stake (in England witches were usually hanged). Her tormented spirit is said to walk naked in the grounds of Holyrood – although she sometimes covers up and wears a white shroud (again, it must be the weather). These three examples fit into a Medieval ghost-type, the ghost who has suffered a wrong in life, and in the first two cases at least, is trying to right that wrong post mortem, so their nakedness is necessary to their stories.[3]

So, while sightings of naked ghosts clearly do occur, their nakedness is for a particular reason. In short, these cases appear to be the exceptions that prove the rule – that most ghosts prefer to wear clothes when being seen.

Of course, sometimes naked ghosts turn out to be something else entirely – in 1834 a primitive Methodist got very primitive indeed and scared the bejazus out of his neighbours by jumping out at them ‘dressed’ – or should that be ‘undressed’ – as a naked boggart. His eccentric prank was not appreciated by the judiciary, and he got three months hard labour for his efforts.[4]

What do ghosts wear?

Accepting that most ghosts wear clothing of some sort, what, then, do they wear?

White sheets – obviously

The popular image of a ghost is of a floaty, often transparent, figure in a white sheet – although most modern ghost sightings don’t seem to support this image. In fact, this version of ghostly attire has particular origins, which will be examined later.

The three living and the three dead. British Museum Collection.

The animated dead found in European Medieval art may often wear white but they look anything but ethereal – rather they look very solid and corpsey. There is no mistaking them as former denizens of the grave, with their mouldering bones poking out of tattered flesh and their wormy eye-sockets all a-stare.

The spectral fashion for white is linked to burial practices. Until about the 17th century, most people in Britain and Europe would have been buried not in a coffin, but in a simple undyed linen or wool winding sheet. It’s not surprising, then, that early ghost sightings tended to describe ghosts dressed in their winding sheets or shrouds.

Detail of grave clothes from Astrology (1806) by Ebenezer Sibly. Wikimedia.

By the eighteenth-century ghosts had a more extensive wardrobe to choose from. However, white clad ghosts were still sighted, Daniel Defoe, writing in his 1727 work ‘An Essay on the History of Apparitions’ describes the traditional ghost as: “[..] dress’d up …in a shroud, as if it just came out of the coffin and the church-yard” And Francis Grose, writing in 1787, reported some ghost as ‘clothed all in white’ but that those were mainly confined to churchyard sightings.[5]

But by the eighteenth century there had been a revolution in grave clothes. Funereal fashion had moved away from the long winding sheets and shrouds of old and developed a new line in more everyday death-wear: tailored shirts for men, and shifts for women. Examples of this fashion can be found in satirical prints by the likes of James Gillray (1756?-1815) and  George Moutard Woodward (1765-1809).  Many Christians believed in actual bodily resurrection for the Last Judgement, so a shirt or shift probably seemed like more practical and respectable attire in which to meet one’s maker!

Of course, while this change was great for the manufacturers of funeral clothes, not everyone appreciated the change. The 18th century saw the rise of Gothic literature and following publication of Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) came a growing appreciation of the beauty of horror. So, what is an artist or a theatre director to do, to recapture the ‘magnificent horror’ of the vengeful spectre? [6]

Artist unknown. University of Austin Texas.

The answer, it seems, was to be found in that other 18th century passion – classical antiquity. The ghosts of art and theatre now took on the white draperies of the ancient Romans or Greeks. Henry Fuseli, George Romney and Johns Flaxman all helped cement this image in the popular imagination and added a cloudy transparency to top it all off.

The white clad ghost captured the public imagination so much so, that this element was incorporated into the Hammersmith Ghost hoax of 1803/04 (in which the belief that ghosts wore white resulted in a tragedy when a white clad bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, was mistaken for the alleged spectre and shot dead).

The Hammersmith Ghost. Wikimedia

Even in the 20th century the power of the white draped phantom is used to particularly chilling effect by MR James in “Oh Whistle Lad, and I’ll come to you”. Here the classical drapery is replaced with more mundane, but no less terrifying, bedsheets that take on a ghostly form and possess an “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen.” Anyone who has ever slept alone in a room with a spare bed must surely feel horror at this description.

Their ordinary clothes

By far the most common attire reported, particularly in modern sightings, is a generic costume appropriate to the era of the apparition. A knight might appear in armour, a religious in the habit of their order, a lady might appear in the fashions of her day, granny might appear in her Sunday best.

Many reports of ghosts have them mistaken for the living, dressed in their ordinary clothes. For example, Daniel Defoe famously reported on the case of the ghost of Mrs Veal. Mrs Veal visited her good friend Mrs Bargrave and the two ladies had a conversation before Mrs Veal finally went on her merry way. Only later, did Mrs B find out her friend had passed away. In order to validate her experience Mrs B was able to describe her late friend’s silk gown in great detail: “you have seen indeed, for none knew, but Mrs Veal and myself, that the gown was scower’d” (to make the fabric softer) [7] so who could it have been but Mrs Veal? [8]

The Penny Story Teller – The Fated Hour 1832. Wikimedia.

Many modern sightings, particularly of deceased friends and relatives also follow this model, with the ghost appearing in their familiar garb (and as with Mrs Veal, sometimes this can make them appear less like ghosts and more ‘real’ to the witness).

Sightings of ghosts in particular period dress, such as Roman Legionaries in York or Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, are also frequently reported. However, as Owen Davies has noted, some periods are favoured over others – he provides a possible explanation in in that popular culture and cinema make it easy for most people to identify a Tudor ghost or the ghosts of Roman soldiers than, say, a bronze age ghost.[9]

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black. 2012. Dir. James Watkins.

Susan Hill’s 1983 novel ‘The Woman in Black’ fixed the black clad ghost firmly in the public psyche.  Jennet’s black clothing symbolise her mourning for her lost child and her malevolent nature as the bringer of death to the innocent.  However, black clad ghosts are rare in Britain compared to in Europe.  Owen Davies suggests this could be down to religious differences.  In Europe, and some medieval English ghost reports, black clad spirits often represent the souls passage through purgatory.  One example, provided by Joe Nickell, was of a corrupt money lender whose doleful ghost appeared to his wife, dressed in black for seven years.  To assist his soul’s journey through purgatory, she prayed at his grave for seven years, until his ghost re-appeared dressed white.  After the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, purgatory fell out of favour in Britain, and black clad ghosts became rarer. [10]

Things changed in the nineteenth century when the Victorian’s elaborate mourning rituals, including black mourning clothes, saw a spike in reports to the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) of ghosts in black clothes.

Skeptics and believers

“[H]ow is a spirit, in itself immaterial and invisible, to become the object of human sight? How is it to acquire the appearance of dress?” (Anti Canidia, 1762) “…as a matter of course, that as ghosts cannot, must not, do not, for decency’s sake, appear WITHOUT CLOTHES; and that there can be no such thing as GHOSTS or SPIRITS of CLOTHES, why, then, it appears that GHOSTS NEVER DID APPEAR AND NEVER CAN APPEAR” (George Cruikshank, 1863)

Both writers express the rationalist position in relation to the existence of ghosts. In doing so, they raise the vexed question of ghost’s clothing – a seemingly trivial question but one that actually strikes at the heart of the nature of ghosts and ghost sightings.

Clothing at its most basic level keeps us warm, but it also expresses social status, tribal identity, and sexual allure. If ghosts are supposed to represent the eternal spirit part of human existence, surely clothing is redundant?

This question, often highlighted by sceptics to support the non-existence of ghosts, forced psychic investigators and believers to examine more critically why this apparently illogical phenomenon is frequently reported by seemingly credible witnesses. Are there ghost clothes, or could ghostly clothing represent something else entirely – how the living receive and perceive such phenomena?

A very brief guide to how ghostly clothing has been explained

The nature of apparitions, how they appear, to whom and why some people see them while others do not, it is a vast topic. This is a brief overview of some of the views presented by early writers and psychical investigators.

The growth of spiritualism, mesmerism and clairvoyance promoted the idea that the sentient souls of the dead could convey thoughts and images to the living via the medium of clairvoyance.

Catherine Crowe (1803-1876), writing in 1848, seemed to support this view when she: “If a spirit could concieve of its former body it can equally concieve of its former habiliments, and so represent them, by the power of will to the eye, or present them to the constructive imagination of the seer” and the reason for this “to appear naked [..] to say the last of it, would be much more frightful and shocking.” [11] Basically, Crowe suggested that ghosts were trying not to offend the Victorian sensibilities of their audience.

Giles Scroggins Ghost. 1893. Wikimedia.

In the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, many psychical investigators, often working under the aegis of the SPR, wanted to encourage a more scientific approach.  Moving the focus away from the power of the apparition to shape it’s appearance, to the power of the viewer to do so.

Here are a few of the theories that came out of these investigations:

Spiritualist Newton Crossland (1812-1895) proposed a ‘spiritual photographic theory‘ suggesting that every moment of a life is psychically recorded and can be reproduced by apparitions – therefore a suitable outfit and props were always on hand.  This view was dismissed by many psychical researchers at the time.

Edmund Gurney of the SPR. Wikimedia.

Frank Podmore (1856-1910) pointed out that many cultures provide grave goods for the dead to utilise in the afterlife, so perhaps ghost clothing was not unreasonable.

Edmund Gurney (1847-1888), co-founder of the SPI, and Frederic Meyers, looked for a more scientific theory and both suggested some form of telepathy. That in the case of crisis apparitions, such as when a person is dying, a blaze of energy from the subject could telepathically project their apparition to a sensitive ‘receiver’ who then clothed the apparition via the medium of their own emotions and memory. Nora Sidgwick (1845-1936), working with Gurney, noted that many witnesses were vague on the detail when pressed to describe the clothing worn by apparitions, which might support this view.

However, this theory would seem to be focused on apparitions of the recently deceased and not to fit so well with historic ghosts where any final blaze of energy would surely be dissipated over the passage of time.

GMN Tyrell (1879 –1952), another member of SPR, considered ghosts as a hallucination of the conscious mind and supported the telepathic theory as the mechanism. He supported the concept of the ‘apparitional drama’ and proposed that clothing and props were part of the apparition as a whole and that the details depended on the viewers personality.[12]

The work of the SPR laid the foundations for a psychology-based approach to understanding why people see apparitions – and why they usually see them clothed.


In setting out to look into why ghosts wear clothes, I was surprised to find that how and what they wore was subject to so much debate. That the apparently frivolous question of where ghosts obtain their clothing, actually leads on to more serious questions such as: whether ghosts exist, why eternal immaterial spirits would need clothing in the first place, whether apparitions have ‘agency’ to create illusions of dress in the mind of the viewer, or whether the psychology of the person witnessing the apparition has bearing on the appearance.

While the jury is likely to remain out for the forseable future, on whether ghosts really do exist , for me the question of why ghosts wear clothes is answered best by Joe Nickell, in his 2012 book, The Science of Ghosts.  Nickell opts for the principle of Occam’s Razor, preferring that the simplest, most tenable explanation is most likely to be true. In this case, that apparitions (and their clothing) are the mental images of the living, appearing as they do in memories, dreams and the imagination.[13]  I like the elegant simplicity of this theory.

What do you think?

‘Oh Whistle Lad and I’ll come to you’. 1904 illustration by James McBryde. Via Wikimedia.

Sources and notes

Anonymous, 1762, Anti-Canidia: Or, Superstition Detected and Exposed. in a Confutation of the Vulgar Opinion Concerning Witches, Spirits, Demons, Magick Crowe, Catherine, 1848, The Night-Side of Nature, or, Ghosts and Ghost-seers (Wordsworth reprint 2000) [11] Cruikshank, George, 1863, A discovery concerning ghosts: with a rap at the “spirit-rappers” Dafoe, Daniel, 1727, The History and Reality of Apparitions <> [7] Davies, Owen, 2007, The Haunted: A social History of Ghosts, Palgrave MacMillan [1][3][4][9] Grose, Francis, 1787, A Provincial Glossary [5] Nickell, Joe, 2012, The Science of Ghosts: Searching for the Spirits of the Dead, Prometheus books [2][8]-[10][13] Owens, Susan, 2017, The Ghost A cultural History, Tate [6] Tyrell GNM, 1953, Apparitions, Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd [12]

#Ghosts #catharinecrowe #MyersandGurney #apparitions #Spiritualphotographictheory #cruikshank #NewtonCrossland #FrankPodmore #spectres #SPR #Societyforpsychicalresearch #GMNTyrell #telephathy #clothing #Gillray #Nightsideofnature #NoraSidgwick #ghostclothes #Spiritualism #DanielDafoe


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