My introduction to all that was spooky started with the elementary school book fair and an old cemetery at the back of the playground. Most children that are fascinated with the paranormal have read Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. These dark tales and amazing illustrations were a collection of folk tales, songs, and urban legends. One of the best stories is The White Dress.
A young man invited a young woman to a formal dance. But she was very poor, and she could not afford to buy the evening gown she needed for such an occasion.
"Maybe you can rent a dress," her mother said. So she went to a pawnshop not far from where she lived. There she found a white satin evening gown in her size. She looked lovely in it, and she was able to rent it for very little. When she arrived at the dance with her friend, she was so attractive, everyone wanted to meet her. She danced again and again and was having a wonderful time. But then she began to feel dizzy and faint, and she asked her friend to take her home. "I think I danced too much," she told him.
When she got home, she lay down on her bed. The next morning, her mother found that her daughter had died. The doctor did not understand what caused her death. So he had the coroner perform an autopsy.
The coroner found that she had been poisoned by embalming fluid. It had stopped her blood from flowing. There were traces of the fluid on her dress. He decided it had entered her skin when she perspired while she was dancing. The pawnbroker said he bought the dress from an undertaker's helper. It had been used in a funeral for another young woman, and the helper had stolen it just before she was buried. (The White Gown by Alvin Schwartz)
The story always starts with a girl who needs a fancy dress for a special occasion. As one of the earliest US urban legends, it has been told hundreds of times and has many different versions. It has been known may several different titles including, Embalmed Alive, Dressed to Kill, The Wedding Dress, and the poisoned dress.
While the name and some minor facts change throughout the retelling, the premise of the story doesn’t. In all versions, there is a young girl who purchases a dress and then dies from some form of poisoning. Some versions describe this dress as a wedding dress, others say it was a formal dress or a ball gown. Where the dress was purchased varies as well. In many of the versions, the dress is purchased from a secondhand store or a pawn shop. Others say the dress was purchased from a department store and the dress had been returned after the dress was worn for a funeral.
The first printed version of this legend can be found in New York Folk Lore Quarterly and was printed in the Autumn of 1952. Post-WWII in the United States was a pivotal time in history. The country was coming out of a war and a decade-long depression. As rationing ended and the middle class grew, some people were able to spend on small luxuries again.
Deadly clothing is not a new concept in literature. The Grimm’s Fairy tale of what is today known as Snow White was far from the quaint Disney tale. Snow White was put into a corset that was meant to suffocate her. When that didn’t work there was no poison apple but poisoned hair combs and red-hot iron shoes. The Grimm Brothers often used poisoned or dangerous clothes in their stories and Hercules met his death after donning a poisoned tunic.
Greek mythology warns of other poisoned clothing as well. One of the most famous is the legend of Glauce. Greek poet Euripides tells the story of Medea and Glauce. Medea was in love with Jason, but he is to marry Glauce, daughter of the king, and Medea is banished with her children. In what appears to be a token of good faith, Medea presents Glauce with a wedding gift. The gift is a beautiful crown and a gown, but when Glauce dons the gown it instantly burns her flesh, and she dies instantly.
In the late 1800s they developed a beautiful green clothing dye. It was known as Shelee’s green. This dye contained arsenic, which was the key to giving it a unique green color. Arsenic is a naturally occurring element but in even small levels can be fatal to humans. These dresses became toxic. The wearers rarely had many symptoms due to the limited exposure. Most symptoms ranged from rash to fatigue. However, the seamstresses working with these dresses would cut the fabric, releasing toxins into the air and then breathing them in. Several died of arsenic poisoning.
Unlike the girl in our story, arsenic poisoning does not cause a quick death and has many symptoms prior to becoming fatal. The first symptoms are mild and include headaches, confusion, diarrhea, and vomiting. Later symptoms can progress into coma and death as the organs shut down.
Why is poisoned clothing so terrifying? It is because a person cannot fight what they cannot see, leaving them defenseless. Clothing is supposed to be protective. It provides warmth, covers nakedness, and provides protection from the elements. Clothing is meant to keep us safe. Being attacked from a point of safety and potential happiness is devastating. In each of these stories, the victim felt safe but shortly succumbed to their own demise.
Clothing can also represent status. Fashion industries paste their logos on their clothing and accessories to show that you can afford the $10,000 purse and shoes. While the homeless are often described as wearing tattered and worn-out clothing. Most versions of this story focus on a girl who cannot afford a new dress to attend and event, so she purchased a secondhand dress instead. This being a representation of social class divide.
These themes are current even in today’s society with events such a homecoming, high school prom, and events such as cotillion. These events require expensive dresses for teens to wear for one night and other expenses such as hair and makeup. This leaves many teens, especially girls being left out.
In all versions of this story, the victim is poisoned by embalming fluid because the dress was once worn by a dead body. As the new wearer’s skin warmed, the embalming fluid seeped through her skin, and died from the poison in the embalming fluid. To your average person, this sounds incredibly scary and possible. Talk of death is taboo in most cultures and not usually discussed, making it scary to most people.
Embalming fluid is made up of many chemicals and is injected into a body after death to preserve the tissues from breaking down while awaiting burial. Over the years the composition of this fluid has changed but the main component has always been formaldehyde. This is the same thing that preserved the frog you dissected in high school. While formaldehyde can be absorbed through the skin, in small doses is not toxic. Formaldehyde is metabolized very quickly in a live human. In order to reach toxic levels, you would have to soak your skin a significantly large quantity of the liquid. Formaldehyde also has a very distinct smell. A dress covered in the embalming fluid would have an odor, especially as the body heats up.
Most urban legends have a grain of truth woven into the fantastic story. While it is possible that a girl died after a social event, especially in the 1950s when medicine was much less sophisticated, but the cause was not due to embalming fluid. Spooky stories such as fables and urban legends use inherent fears to illicit emotion. This story still lives on in both written versions and word of mouth.
Alvin Schwartz (2019). Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
The Hairpin. A Dress to die for.
#FolkloreThursday: The Poisoned Dress
The last kiss
The long strange history of women wearing deadly clothing
Embalmed Alive: A developing Urban Ghost Tale