Mrs Daffodil is pleased to present a story of haunted textiles from that vintage-clad person over at Haunted Ohio. This particular tale comes from the first volume in the Haunted Ohio series. “Alexis” is a pseudonym for the witness, a person of the highest respectability who did not wish to be named.
The Haunted Garden-Party Dress
It was August, with the stiflingly humid weather that made Alexis want to crawl to a pool of water and stay in it until first frost. She was on her way to the Historical Society’s costume collection to begin another day of photographing and cleaning antique garments. In the front hall she passed the Egyptian mummy, which had always given her the creeps as a child. She rode up to the attic workrooms in the tiny elevator. Its walls seemed to close in on her like the walls of a coffin.
Alexis tried to shake free of such morbid thoughts, but all her life she had been unusually sensitive to atmosphere and what she called “vibrations” from objects and people. She walked down the hall past what had been the servants’ quarters in the former mansion and unlocked the door of the workroom.
In spite of the heat outside, the air conditioners were doing their job and Alexis began to relax as she put away her purse and got out the materials she needed: fine needles and cotton thread to stitch catalogue numbers on garments, acid-free tissue paper to stuff into sleeves and bodices, the Polaroid camera and extra film.
Alexis had a passion for antique clothes. She loved the beautiful materials, the tiny stitches and exquisite workmanship, the laces, beads, and sequins. In exchange for volunteering to remove rusted pins and staples from the old labeling system and to stuff tissue into sleeves, she’d gotten permission to photograph and study items in the collection.
She sighed as she handled an 1880s champagne velvet evening cloak, slit in the back to accommodate a bustle. Cascading over the shoulders and bodice was an encrustation of corded ivory embroidery and, around the neck and sleeves, a froth of swansdown to keep the wearer from the cold. It transported Alexis to a faraway world, a world of late suppers at Maxim’s, of the Merry Widow Waltz, of top-hatted admirers calling out, “Cheri, where have you been?”
Her favorite dress was a luminous scarlet velvet sprinkled with garnets. The fabric glowed from within, while the garnets winked at the slightest motion. There were two bodices: one cut low, with heavy lace sleeves, for evening wear; the other molded to the body, with those same glittering garnets, like drops of blood on the bosom.
Alexis loved antique textiles, but she also had a problem with “vibing out” whenever she was around a lot of old clothes in one place. There were over 7,000 items in this collection, Alexis realized. She also realized that it was the costume curator’s day off. She would be alone in the attic. She started with a rack of clothes from the 1880s up to the First World War, not by any means the oldest items in the collection. The garments were grouped by type. There was a collection of slipper satin evening skirts with trains—a whole row of pale ivory, sky blue, a vivid gold. There were racks of fine chiffons, looking as though they had been spun by spiders and a section of velvet evening gowns—soft and black as a raven’s wing.
Alexis pulled out a dull green velvet dress that looked like it could have been worn by one of Oscar Wilde’s “aesthetic dress” disciples. She hung it on the wall and took a Polaroid shot. As she put the dress back on the rack, her hand brushed the velvet and she shivered.
Alexis hung another dress on the end of the rack and stepped back to frame the picture. The dress was a garden-party muslin, white with great garlands of heavy, heavenly blue embroidery looping around the bottom of the wide skirt. She squinted through the viewfinder of the camera. The bosom of the dress stirred. Slowly she lowered the camera. Inside the dress, tissue paper crackled as it uncrumpled itself. She smiled and raised the camera once more. Her hands began to shake. If I press the button, she thought, driven by an overpowering certainty, I will see the woman in the dress.
She began to panic in slow motion. She realized that it wasn’t a matter of “wouldn’t it be funny if the woman showed up on the photo?” but an emphatic, “I will see the woman when the photo comes out.”
At that moment, as though a radio had been switched on, came a chaos of voices. Women: shrieking, imploring, summoning, commanding—all demanding to be heard, desperate to make her understand. Some imperious, some furious, some insane with frustration. All struggling like birds against a glass to get through, to make her hear.
Look at me Listen to me Hear what I’m saying Listen
The noise swept over her like a wave. She couldn’t breathe; her heart was bursting. I will die, she thought, calmly as a drowning person, and then I will scream too.
The frothiest pieces seemed the noisiest, Alexis thought incongruously. Like the lawn dress, c. 1918…a lot of the young women in lawn dresses didn’t make it through the influenza epidemic.
Later, in a haze, Alexis remembered hanging all the dresses back on their racks. Remembered putting away the tags and supplies and locking the door. Remembered forcing herself to take a photo of the dress, even though a woman from another time would appear on the film.
But when she returned the next day the door stood open. Cautiously she entered, careful not to brush against the racks of clothes. The dresses were where she had left them: the red velvet dress lying on the table, the white dress with blue embroidery at the end of the rack. She held her breath, listened. Nothing but her own heartbeat in her ears. Quickly she hung the dresses in their places, put away the supplies, picked up bits of lint. Slowly she sorted the photos on the work table. There was none of a white dress.
Alexis picked up her portfolio, placed the photos in it, her muscles tensed as if for flight. In the doorway, she looked back at the racks and racks of gleaming silks and velvets. A jet dangle on a beaded cape winked at her.
She shut the door and locked it, feeling as if time were running out. She quietly pushed on the knob to make sure the door was latched and turned away. Something, a breath of air from under the door, made her turn back. Made her stand listening, pressed against the door, to the taffetas whispering among themselves.
Haunted Ohio: Ghostly Tales from the Buckeye State, Chris Woodyard, 1991
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. She blogs on international fortean topics at hauntedohiobooks.com.