What’s Wrong With Wearing Dead People’s Clothes?

Really, it's okay to embrace your second-hand purchase's mortal past.

November 1 is a day for commemorating the dead. Christians call it All Saints Day; in Mexico and Latin America, it’s Dia de los Muertos. It’s odd that, while we’re happy to watch scary movies, dress up as corpses and admire carnivalesque skeletons, we’re more squeamish about real-life dead people… and their clothes.

I’ve shopped at op-shops since my early teens, and people have often teased me that I was wearing ‘dead people’s clothes’. The second-hand clothing industry has only recently emerged as ‘vintage’ from unsavory associations with poverty, disease… and death.

In Africa, where second-hand clothes are imported in bulk, similar attitudes prevail. In Ghana and Togo, they’re jocularly known as ‘dead white man’s clothing’, while Tanzanians call them ‘dyed in America’ and in Somalia it’s ‘huudhaydh’, the phonetic spelling of “Who died?”

Oh No, A Po’

There’s been a to-do this week about the Tumblr ‘Selfies At Funerals‘. But the Victorians were all over that shit. Because of higher mortality rates and multi-generational households, people were intimate with death. And before the 1880s advent of cheap box cameras, people couldn’t always capture images of loved ones before they died. Their last chance was the ‘lifelike’ postmortem studio portrait.

Often, we preserve clothes as relics of their departed wearers — think of that heart-wrenching shirt scene in Brokeback Mountain. But clothes were once assets to be pawned in tough times. A dead person’s wardrobe could be sold to cover funeral expenses, and people of all classes bequeathed their wardrobes to friends, relatives or servants.

There wasn’t anything shameful about dead people’s clothes until two things happened. First, mass-produced new clothes became both cheap and well-made enough to seem better value than used garments. And second, the post-WWII rise of the big charity brands including Oxfam, the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul created a clothing system explicitly for poor people.

Donating one’s used clothes once signified noblesse oblige. Wealthy people frequently gave their servants their cast-offs; well-meaning lady philanthropists parcelled up clothes for paupers and ‘fallen women’. But today the rich rarely donate to op-shops. Their clothes are auctioned, bequeathed to museums or sold to consignment boutiques. So we imagine that the clothes in op-shops must come from the people these charities serve: aged pensioners dying in shabby flats, or junkies ODing in squats.

Op-shop clothes aren’t ‘gifted’, but stuffed unceremoniously in garbage bags and charity bins. Indeed, in the gruesomely literal dénouement of Ana Kokkinos’s 2009 film Blessed, two neglected kids accidentally burn to death in a charity bin. “Life isn’t a big fancy dress party,” sneers a policeman at two working-class schoolgirls earlier in the film. “Everybody has to look like what they are.”

Ghosts and Contamination

Because people once commonly died of infectious diseases, the popular imagination still links second-hand clothes with death and contagion. In Yemen, used clothes are treated as contraband; imports caught at the border are burned.

“These are coming from the dumps of rich Saudi families,” customs officer Dr. Abdulrazaq Al-Mirani explained to the Yemen Times. “They could be the clothes of dead people.”

Similarly, in China second-hand clothes are legal to export but not to import, because environmental regulations deem them to be waste products. Chen Luhua told the Global Times that he’s nagged to bathe after he gets home from a day of sorting garments for export.

“My family wants to make sure I am ‘disinfected’, as if I have some kind of virus,” Chen says.

You’ve probably heard the urban myth in which a dress worn by a corpse at a funeral is sold to an unsuspecting lady who is subsequently poisoned by the embalming fluid permeating the dress. In the version I heard as a teenager, the dress (which only causes a nasty rash) is from Target and the funeral ruse is both enabled and discovered by Target’s liberal returns policy.

But in other versions, the new wearer buys it secondhand, and is either embalmed alive or poisoned by formaldehyde. There’s often an undertone of punishing people for aspiring to social mobility: in early tellings the dress’s original, deceased owner is a ‘Negress’, while the ill-fated new owner is an ambitious factory girl seeking to ‘marry up’.

This story reveals our fears about the hidden practices of unscrupulous morticians, but the contamination it narrates is cultural. In China there’s a superstition that wearing a dead person’s clothes invokes the displeasure of his or her ghost. And in some versions of the poison dress story, the new owner in her formaldehydic delirium hears a spectral voice demanding the dress back.

Now we banish these ghosts through cleansing rituals both practical and spiritual. Earlier this year, US televangelist Pat Robertson was mocked for his suggestion to pray over op-shop clothes to expunge their demons. But isn’t there something just as irrational about laundering or dry-cleaning a garment to erase all physical evidence of its previous wearer?

My Not-So-New Cardigan

A few weeks ago at Savers, I bought an awesome houndstooth cardigan in black and jade-green. The pattern and the black-and-gold buttons give it a vaguely Chanel look that I think of as ‘classic’.

Let’s face it, the style also says ‘grandma’. And I had a hunch about the cardie’s provenance because it had an iron-on name label, of the sort you might add to prevent clothing getting lost in a nursing home. When I Googled the name on the label, I found a funeral notice indicating its owner had died in late August.

Rather than being disquieted by this evidence of death, I was intrigued. I found myself wanting to know more about this lady’s life. But archival searches yielded nothing more than her death, her suburb of residence and the names of her two daughters. I imagined these daughters clearing out their mother’s possessions. If they saw me in the street, would they recognise her cardigan?

The cardigan doesn’t feel haunted. It’s mine now, but the person who once cherished it is still real to me. Rather than recoiling from abstract ‘dead people’, I’m oddly comforted by the thought that a part of who we were can persist in what we wore.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now.