Julia Petrov (Western Canadian History Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton, Canada). Fashioning Fear

This paper reviews how and why clothing has become associated with horror in the modern era. The medieval symbolic understanding of clothing as being laden with the presence and terror of death is key to the understanding of how costume functions in the Gothic and horror literature and film of succeeding centuries. The Romantic period, in particular, saw the cultural and historical origin of the use and associations of certain types of clothing and fashion with villains and victims, identifying character archetypes through costume, such as masks and blood-stained garments. With the birth of mass media, the transmission and hybridization of horror costume tropes increased, locating horror not within the body of the killer or the seams of their clothes, but within the audience’s recognition of what they represent. Social rituals, in particular presented opportunities for the examination of tradition, and so the role of dress in enacting and subverting social expectations around weddings, funerals, masquerades, and holidays such as Halloween is explored for its ability to inspire terror.

Dress possesses characteristics which enable its easy application in horror contexts. Its aesthetic functions permit its narrative role: to reveal or conceal the shocking body, to attract or repulse the viewer, to identify the villain or the victim. All these functions, in turn, have psychological effects: Mood may be set, morality or immorality may be conveyed, innocence may be corrupted. Dress in horror fashions abjection and disguise.

When dress is used in horror literature and film as a plot device, it is used knowingly. It reflects the properties and characteristics of dress in the ordinary world, but these are often twisted in unexpected ways for narrative effect. The ability of dress to be a marker of the wearer’s personality or social status may turn out to be misleading, with dangerous consequences. Clothing’s outward beauty can hide grotesqueness. Its protective function may fail to contain the mortal flesh underneath. Thus, dress becomes an untrustworthy signifier, but also an effective narrative element. We are all familiar with dress; we all intuitively know how it should function. Therefore, to disturb that ‘nature’ is to add to the disturbing effect of horror.

In fact, our fears about clothing are reflective of much deeper anxieties around the vulnerability of our bodies. The psychological tension comes from a fear of the disruption of boundaries – the social and physical categories we shore up against chaos. The stain, the wrinkle, or the tear can be metaphors for universal human anxieties, including shame, disorder, loss, trauma, and abjection. In horror, questions of identity are entangled with how dress facilitates role enactment. The element of masquerade has an added frisson, in that the audience cannot know how deep the usual disguise goes. Sometimes, the true horror is when the mask hides something even more horrible.

Therefore, dress in horror can be understood as the guise of society’s norms and fears, displaced, symbolized, and condensed in horror as they might be in a dream. The fears inherent in horror are coded visibly through the dress of characters: foreignness, decadence, (sexual and material) hegemony, anonymity, disability, criminality, ageing, etc. Any disruption of “normal”, accepted, and ordered boundaries, through dress or otherwise, might presage even worse things to come – the greatest fear of all being the oblivion of death. In horror, the boundaries of the body, including death or life, as well as its powers of attraction and/or repulsion, are defined by clothing and accessories. The doom of irrelevance and decay which defines the fashion cycle, mirrors humanity’s own fears of inevitable mortality.

Clothing is supposed to protect us, but instead, it exposes us to the ravages of time, to the threat of death, to the inequalities of gender and class hierarchies, to the hidden monsters, and all our mortal, moral shortcomings, laid bare. This is the danse macabre of clothing and horror: life and death, beauty and ugliness, the grotesque and the sublime, stitched together in wickedly attractive seams.