On a recent trip to Texas I found myself at the Fort Worth Stockyards Museum. Sat incongruously amongst the tooled leather saddles, 1920s pageant queen costumes, and beadwork by Indigenous people of the Great Plains was a case containing ‘The Bad Luck Wedding Dress’. ‘This dress’, the caption read, ‘has brought personal misery or disaster to everyone who has worn it or planned to wear it’. Designed and made in 1886 from Ottoman silk and rare lace, the dress has been preserved in the museum to stop its curse afflicting anyone else.
The idea that dress can be diabolic has haunted folktales and literature. The central character of Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat, published in 1842, returns from the grave as a spectral vision that steals the coats of the living. Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 fairytale The Red Shoes covers themes of vanity and transgression of class boundaries, and concludes with the protagonist having her feet chopped off in an attempt to stop the perpetual dancing inflicted by the enchanted shoes. Even Miss Havisham's wedding dress seems haunted, symbolising lost hope through a moment preserved in aspic. It is her dress that eventually kills her, catching fire and causing the burns that contribute to her death. More recently, designer Hussein Chalayan created ‘The Possessed Dress’ – a garment that shifts shape when worn – for a 2016 exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And actual fashion fatalities have been investigated by dress historian Alison Matthews David in the appropriately-named Fashion Victims (2017).
Peter Strickland’s film In Fabric (2018), about a deadly dress sold from the eerie department store Dentley and Soper, brings these primeval fears to the screen. The story revolves around a dress ‘of chiffon and silk and satin’ in artery red with dagger neckline, complete with wound-like black appliqué at the abdomen. The possessed dress fits to any body that wears it, yet leaves its mark in gruesome abrasions before ultimately ending the life of each of its wearers. The phantasmagorical garment billows in its maleficence, reminiscent of Kate Moss in the finale for Alexander McQueen’s ‘The Widows of Culloden’ catwalk show (autumn/winter 2006), which used the 19th-century illusion known as Pepper’s Ghost to create an ethereal mass of swelling chiffon.
Throughout the film, the relationship between body and clothing, life and death, is explored. Textiles accompany us in rituals from the cradle to the grave, enveloping our bodies, infused with our mortality in the form of scent and secretions (it was, in fact, a semen stain on a pair of corduroy trousers from a charity shop, that inspired Strickland to investigate this relationship). Our bodies are often prepared for death using textiles, from funeral clothes to burial shrouds and the linen layers that wrapped Egyptian mummies. The vision of Strickland’s dress hanging alone implies the absence of a body and the lack of life itself.
There are hints, too, at memento mori dressing. Black is the colour of fashion (‘the new black’) but also the colour of mourning. In Fabric’s costume designer Jo Thompson dressed the store assistants at Dentley and Soper in black lace, reminiscent of Victorian mourning dress glimpsed through a Balenciaga-esque lens. The fragile relationship between textile and skin is evident in the film's poster, in which flimsy paper rips to reveal muscle, tissue and bone beneath.
The aesthetics of horror films have provided much inspiration for fashion, especially designers such as Alexander McQueen and Rodarte (an influence which I traced in my 2016 book The Fashion of Film). Sartorial obsessions are an undercurrent to many horror films, from the extravagant European aristocracy of vampire movies to American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman (2000) and Buffalo Bill’s desire to create a ‘woman suit’ from the skin of his victims in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Yet horror films or thrillers set in the fashion industry tend to remain in the world of high fashion: Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016), Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), Irvin Kershner’s The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) and Paul Thomas Anderson’s macabre romance Phantom Thread (2017).
The more prosaic department store – along with the occupations of central characters from a washing machine repair man to a bank clerk – lend a Lynchian quality to Strickland’s picture by finding creeping terror in the everyday. Nightmarish visions are found in the paraphernalia of retail that are becoming anachronistic in the 21st century, from catalogues to TV adverts. Along with the chilling uncanniness of the mannequins, the store references a number of horror tropes in a gloriously camp celebration of the morbid and the erotic. There is an echo of Conrad Veidt in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) within store manager Mr Lundy’s inky ensemble and haunted gaze, while products on sale include a pair of Carpathian stockings, a nod to the mountain location of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).
The precursor to In Fabric that has been referenced most consistently in reviews of the film is Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and its antecedents in the Italian giallo thriller-horror genre. While debate rages as to whether Suspiria can be considered a true giallo film, it certainly drew on several aesthetic markers of the genre. Argento himself was no stranger to the world of fashion: he directed a catwalk show for Italian fashion house Trussardi in 1986. The production recreated elements of the opening of Suspiria and included a model getting stabbed and dragged offstage in transparent polythene resembling a body bag. Strickland has claimed Suspiria was not an influence. However, his earlier picture Berberian Sound Studio (2012) was set in a 1970s Italian film studio – on the set of a giallo movie – ensuring he has an intricate feel for the aural and visual onslaught that the genre offers. This intimacy seeps into the fabric of his film like blood oozing through lace.
Horror can make an effective tool for satire, as seen in the recent skewering of the contemporary art world in Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) released on Netflix earlier this year. In this light, In Fabric can be read as a morality tale of the horrors of over-consumption. Nods to late-stage capitalism come in the philosophical deadpanning of store assistant Miss Luckmoore (played brilliantly by Fatma Mohamed), such as: ‘Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?’ The last scene of the film invokes the very real deaths that continue to be caused by the sweated labour of fast fashion; undoubtedly this is an industry with blood on its hands.
What I found ultimately enthralling about In Fabric, and what sets it apart from its giallo forerunners, is a distinct lack of sensationalized or fetishized dead female bodies. Here, the horror and the violence is literally bound up in fabric, ensuring this film is set to become a stylish horror classic.
Main image: Peter Strickland, In Fabric, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Curzon Artifical Eye
Amber Butchart is a fashion historian, author and broadcaster who specializes in the historical intersections between dress, politics and culture. She was the presenter of BBC4’s six-part series ‘A Stitch in Time’ that fused biography and art to explore the lives of historical figures through the clothes they wore. Her latest book is The Fashion Chronicles: style stories of history’s best dressed. Find her on Twitter and Insta @AmberButchart