The Perfect Terror of the White Nightgown

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The Perfect Terror of the White Nightgown

When I was in college in the Hudson Valley, I rented an apartment off-campus in the rectory of a very small Victorian church. I lived above a classics professor, with my bedroom overlooking the graveyard and the woods beyond. Sometimes, late at night, I’d hear the organist practicing. He was also the caretaker of the church, and the town handyman. He liked, he explained once, to practice at night in the summer when the heat had abated. So at midnight, he’d drive his old truck to the tiny parking lot and slip inside the blue clapboard building. The stained glass would light up with the flick of a switch, and soon after I’d hear hymnal music drifting through my open bedroom window.

It was a beautiful church, rural and quiet with very few congregants, all of them elderly. I can’t remember who told me about the ghost. It was probably the classics professor, who had rented his space for decades, building a quiet, elegant, solitary life. But I’ll never forget the story. According to local legend, there was once a preacher who lived in the modest blue building with his wife and child. Even before the child died, the wife was unhappy. She didn’t take well to the small town or to the dampness that drifted off the nearby river. When her child drowned, she became bereft. She followed her child to the grave (death by broken heart?), but she didn’t stay there. She walked at night, in a long white nightgown, around the cemetery. Once, during an August thunderstorm, I thought I saw her thin form moving among the graves. But perhaps I was just so taken by the way the thunder rolled along the hills in a slow sad duet with the pipe organ.

I don’t believe in ghosts, but maybe I do, just a little. I certainly believe in the power of haunted tales, and the Lady in White is one of the most common structures for ghost stories. She exists throughout the world, from Brazil, where the Dama Branca wanders silently, unable to explain whether she was a victim of an honor killing or died at the hands of her lover, to Estonia where the ghost of a lovesick woman was supposedly immured inside the walls of Haapsalu Castle. Some tales specify that she’s wearing a sleeping dress, others say she’s in bridal garb and others just say she wears a white dress. The stories are most common in American folklore, and she’s often cast as a thin woman with long flowing hair, wearing a Victorian-style nightdress and wandering along roadsides, through cemeteries and churches, under bridges, and through the woods. She exists in contrast to the Woman in Black and the Woman in Red, two other ghostly types that flit through our history. They are always mysterious, dressed in monochrome, lacking distinguishing features— blurred non-people—reeking of sadness. Even in death, what a woman wears is important. Even after death, her outfit still matters.

Even after death, her outfit still matters

The nightgown is the eeriest article of clothing. While peter-pan collars are a little spooky, and black opera gloves do have a sinister vibe, few pieces of cloth frighten like a shapeless floor-length gown. Perhaps the only thing scarier is a medieval plague mask or perhaps a gas mask, but that’s not everyday wear (at least, not with my lifestyle). The nightgown once was, and thanks to contemporary designers, there are now more thin women in white walking about during the day. Apparently, not everyone finds nightgowns as spooky as I do.

Perhaps I find them scary because I have lifelong insomnia, and anything related to sleep feels rather double-edged—enticing yet distant. Or perhaps it has something to do with when nightgowns rose into fashion. The early 1800s is when sleepwear became a thing, and this also happens to be the era when horror became an independent genre. Before 1800, people mostly just slept in their underthings or in tunics and undergarments, what Donna Talarico at Mental Floss calls the “equivalent of today’s plain white T-shirt and leggings.” Generally, most people didn’t have special clothes for sleeping. Some people slept nude, others wore their day clothes. The nobility had nicer sleeping outfits, but that was to be expected—they had nicer everything. Nightgowns only truly became a consumer product in the mid-1800s when middle-class women began to purchase tailored sleeping gowns with lace and ribbons. (And to make them at home, thanks to the invention of the sewing machine in the 1790s.) What we think of now as a nightgown—some sort of yoke at the top, long and flowing, loose-fitting but maybe a few trimmings here and there—was born in the Victorian era. Although we have plenty of other nightshirts and chemises and pajama sets to pick from now, the Victorian nightdress remains in circulation. You can buy them from high-end department stores like Neiman Marcus or from the humble and wholesome Vermont Country Store.

Horror followed a similar trajectory. After the Industrial Revolution, people had more time to think about fashion, to read, and to sleep. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole was published in 1764 and is largely considered the very first Gothic horror novel. Horror’s scary mommy, Ann Radcliffe, began publishing her highly popular stories soon after, and horror’s grande dame, Mary Shelley, published Frankenstein, which took the medium to new literary heights and to new audiences, in 1818. By the early 1800s, the Gothic horror was such a well-established genre that Jane Austen was even writing satirical novels about the dangers of young women reading too many pulpy, scary stories. (Northanger Abbey, my favorite Austen, was published after her death in 1817.) Two centuries after Austen wrote about a trembling, yet clever Catherine Morland jumping at every noise, we’re still scared silly by Susan Hill and Carmen Maria Machado.

The Woman in White has no clear originator. She’s everywhere and nowhere at once. Whether it’s La Llorona or Yūrei, the story has the same basic skeleton. Like the ghostly women in black, the White Woman is grieving, but she’s not always sinister. She’s usually too sad, too heartbroken. She was abandoned by her lover or her father or her children. In some stories, she killed her babies, and in others, her little ones were taken from her. When Jane Eyre first meets her predecessor in Rochester’s affections, she almost mistakes her for an apparition, or maybe a “German vampire”—something already dead, dressed for burial. The sinister Bertha wears a “white and straight” garment, either a “gown, sheet, or shroud.” Whether she’s breathing or wailing, the White Woman is tragic and, even when she’s given a wee bit of agency, there’s a sense that she is somewhat powerless. She didn’t choose her sadness or her madness. It chose her.

Perhaps it makes sense that the ghost story felt particularly poignant during the Victorian era, when women had so few rights, and perhaps it makes sense that ghost tales are making a comeback in modern American literature, now that women are waking up to our continued oppression. Ghosts allow people to speak about the unspeakable, to give form to things that are too painful to look at straight on. They’re our living nightmares, sublimated into entertainment.

Nightgowns feel innocent but also slightly off-putting. These are garments worn to bed, to cover you from neck to toe. Many of art history’s most famous images of women sleeping feature bodies in the nude, soft and sensual and utterly without agency. But a woman in a nightgown is something else. She’s vulnerable and covered at once, like the inscrutable sisters from The Virgin Suicides. This reading is probably what drew Taylor Swift to the nightgown. According to a 2015 Vanity Fair profile, Swift likes to buy her buddies Victorian-style nightgowns to wear during sleepovers. I find this mildly creepy but also kind of charming. She’s impersonating Kirstin, my favorite American Girl Doll. She’s regressing safely with other women, outside the gaze of men. Compare that to how Kanye decided to show Taylor sleeping—stripped bare and unconscious.

She’s an echo of pain forever trapped in frills and lace

Innocence broken is a powerful narrative, and that’s what the Woman in White is. She’s an echo of pain forever trapped in frills and lace. Often she points toward sexuality without being sexual, and sometimes in film, the nightgown is a sign that sexual violence is about to occur—that sexuality is being imposed on the woman from an outside source. The nightgown, according to Alexa Brazilian at T Magazine, “represents a premarital (and pre-men) innocence: the days of sleeping blissfully alone, face freshly washed, hair just brushed, dreaming of all the romances still to come.” (Cue the menacing music. Nothing that gold can ever stay.) Just look at Edgar Degas’s painting Interior (1868-9), which has been given a second, unofficial name: The Rape. The painting shows a woman ready for bed, freshly washed, in her private quarters. She is tense and afraid, turned away from the man in her room. Where she is light and slight, he is dark and tall. Where she is crouched and tense, he seems at ease.

But not all nightie-clad women are ladies waiting for their horrific attack or bent neck moment. Some are just fashionable dressers, who know how to be “incredibly sexy in a coy, strictly suggestive way,” as Brazilian puts it. She points to Ukranian brand Sleeper for creating simple cotton dresses that can be worn day or night, and Three Graces London for creating similarly versatile shifts. In April 2018, Man Repeller’s Haley Nahman suggested wearing a nightgown as a day dress. For her, nightgowns don’t call to mind Audrey Hepburn or Julie Andrews, but rather a “kind old woman who’s a little sleepy, perhaps holding a candle, asking if I’d like some warm milk.” (Apparently, the nightgown speaks to all three stages of romanticized womanhood, from maiden to mother to crone.) But Nahman ends her piece with an important question: “Is a nightgown just a white caftan?”

Yes and no. Worn during the day with clunky wooden heels and a market bag in tow, nightgowns are just lightly hued caftans. They really do have to be worn at night in order to realize their full potential—spooky, innocent, sexy, or, if you gather enough nightgown wearing babes, culty. And maybe that’s my favorite form of the nightdress. I like Swift’s girls-in-gowns idea. I like the idea of a gathering of White Women, a coven ready to cause trouble, a group of potential Sabrinas who are unwilling to be good, but not quite ready to be bad.

Katy Kelleher is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the swampy woods of Maine. She writes about weird art, bad looks, good taste, and forgotten colors.

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