The question of the apparel worn by apparitions has often aroused considerable controversy. Psychical researcher Frank Podmore provides some reflections upon the issue:
"The apparition commonly consists simply of a figure, clothed as the percipient was accustomed to see the agent clothed; whereas to be true to life the phantasm would as a rule have to appear in bed. In cases where the vision gives no information as to the agent's clothing and surroundings generally— and, as already said, such cases form the great majority of the well attested narratives—we may suppose that what is transmitted is not any part of the superficial content of the agent's consciousness, but an impression from the underlying massive and permanent elements which represent his personal identity. The percipient's imagination is clearly competent to clothe such an impression with appropriate imagery, must indeed so clothe it if it is to rise into consciousness at all…. The ghosts, it will have been observed, always appear clothed. Have clothes also ethereal counterparts? Such was and is the belief of many early races of mankind, who leave clothes, food, and weapons in the graves of the dead, or burn them on the funeral pile, that their friends may have all they require in the spirit world. But are we prepared to accept this view? And again, these ghosts commonly appear, not in the clothes which they were wearing at death—for most deaths take place in bed—but in some others, as will be seen from an examination of the stories already cited. Are we to suppose the ethereal body going to its wardrobe to clothe its nakedness withal? or that, as in the case of En-sign Cavalcante's appearance to Frau Reiken, the ghost will actually take off the ethereal clothes it wore at death and replace them with others? It is scarcely necessary to pursue the subject. The difficulties and contradictions involved in adapting it to explain the clothes must prove fatal to the ghost theory."
In The Ghost World (1893), Thistleton Dyer summarizes a large body of reported apparitions that mention the figures' appearance:
"It is the familiar dress worn in lifetime that is, in most cases, one of the distinguishing features of the ghost, and when Sir George Villiers wanted to give a warning to his son, the Duke of Buckingham, his spirit appeared to one of the Duke's servants 'in the very clothes he used to wear.' Mrs. Crowe, [in her Night Side of Nature, ] some years ago, gave an account of an apparition which appeared at a house in Sarratt, Hertfordshire. It was that of a well-dressed gentleman, in a blue coat and bright gilt buttons, but without a head. It seems that this was reported to be the ghost of a poor man of that neighbourhood who had been murdered, and whose head had been cut off. He could, therefore, only be recognised by his 'blue coat and bright gilt buttons.' Indeed, many ghosts have been nicknamed from the kinds of dress in which they have been in the habit of appearing. Thus the ghost at Allanbank was known as 'Pearlin Jean,' from a species of lace made of thread which she wore; and the 'White Lady' at Ashley Hall—like other ghosts who have borne the same name—from the white drapery in which she presented herself. Some lady ghosts have been styled 'Silky,' from the rustling of their silken costume, in the wearing of which they have maintained the phantom grandeur of their earthly life. There was the 'Silky' at Black Heddon who used to appear in silken attire, oftentimes 'rattling in her silks;' and the spirit of Denton Hall—also termed 'Silky'—walks about in a white silk dress of antique fashion. This last 'Silky' was thought to be the ghost of a lady who was mistress to the profligate Duke of Argyll in the reign of William III, and died suddenly, not without suspicion of murder, at Chirton, near Shields—one of his residences. The 'Banshee of Loch Nigdal,' too, was arrayed in a silk dress, green in colour. These traditions date from a period when silk was not in common use, and therefore attracted notice in country places. Some years ago a ghost appeared at Hampton Court, habited in a black satin dress with white kid gloves. The White 'Lady of Skipsea' makes her midnight serenades clothed in long, white drapery. Lady Bothwell, who haunted the mansion of Woodhouselee, always appeared in white; and the apparition of the mansion of Houndwood, in Berwickshire—bearing the name of 'Chappie'—is clad in silk attire.
"One of the ghosts seen at the celebrated Willington Mill was that of a female in greyish garments. Sometimes she was said to be wrapped in a mantle, with her head depressed and her hands crossed on her lap. Walton Abbey had its headless lady who used to haunt a certain wainscotted chamber, dressed in blood-stained garments, with her infant in her arms; and, in short, most of the ghosts that have tenanted our country houses have been noted for their distinctive dress.
"Daniel Defoe, in his Essay on the History and Reality of Apparitions, has given many minute details as to the dress of a ghost. He tells a laughable and highly amusing story of some robbers who broke into a mansion in the country, and, while ransacking one of the rooms, they saw, in a chair, 'a grave, ancient man, with a long full-bottomed wig, and a rich, brocaded gown,' etc. One of the robbers threatened to tear off his 'rich brocaded gown,' another hit at him with a firelock, and was alarmed at seeing it pass through the air; and then the old man 'changed into the most horrible monster that ever was seen, with eyes like two fiery daggers red hot.' The same apparition encountered them in different rooms, and at last the servants, who were at the top of the house, throwing some 'hand grenades' down the chimneys of these rooms, the thieves were dispersed. Without adding further stories of this kind, which may be taken for what they are worth, it is a generally received belief in ghost lore that spirits are accustomed to appear in the dresses which they wore in their lifetime—a notion credited from the days of Pliny the Younger to the present day.
"But the fact of ghosts appearing in earthly raiment has excited the ridicule of many philosophers, who, even admitting the possibility of a spiritual manifestation, deny that there can be the ghost of a suit of clothes. George Cruikshank, too, who was no believer in ghosts, sums up the matter thus: 'As it is clearly impossible for spirits to wear dresses made of the materials of earth, we should like to know if there are spiritual outfitting shops for the clothing of ghosts who pay visits on earth.'
"Whatever the objections may be to the appearance of ghosts in human attire, they have not hitherto overthrown the belief in their being seen thus clothed, and Byron, describing the 'Black Friar' who haunted the cloisters and other parts of Newstead Abbey, tells us that he was always 'arrayed in cowl, and beads, and dusky garb.' Indeed, as Dr. Tylor remarks in [Primitive Culture ] it is 'an habitual feature of the ghost stories of the civilised, as of the savage world, that the ghost comes dressed, and even dressed in well-known clothing worn in life.' And he adds that the doctrine of object-souls was held by the Algonquin tribes, the islanders of the Fijian group, and the Karens of Burmah—it being supposed that not only men and beasts have souls, but inorganic things. Thus Mariner, describing the Fijian belief, writes: 'If a stone or any other substance is broken, immortality is equally its reward; nay, artificial bodies have equal good luck with men, and hogs, and yams. If an axe or a chisel is worn out or broken up, away flies its soul for the service of the gods. The Fijians can further show you a sort of natural well, or deep hole in the ground, at one of their islands, across the bottom of which runs a stream of water, in which you may clearly see the souls of men and women, beasts and plants, stocks and stones, canoes and horses, and of all the broken utensils of this frail world, swimming, or rather tumbling along, one over the other, pell-mell, into the regions of immortality.' As it has been observed, animistic conceptions of this kind are no more irrational than the popular idea prevalent in civilized communities as to spirits appearing in all kinds of garments."
With the development of spirit photography around 1862 as a corroborative aspect of Spiritualist phenomena, the question of phantom apparel appeared finally to have some objective basis. However, later experiments in projecting mental pictures onto photographic materials suggested that mental impressions might still color representations of the clothing of phantoms. More important, spirit photography was so deeply involved in fraud that any data derived from it is at best suspect.
The question of ghost attire is a puzzling one, and it may be more useful to regard individual cases on their own merit. Above and beyond spirit photographs, there were many undoubted examples of deliberate fraud in the representation of spirit forms produced in materialization séances clothed in a drapery of ectoplasm, which turned out to be a person covered with cheesecloth. There were, of course, many examples in which scientific observers testified to seeing ectoplasm develop into spirit forms with vague clothing, and there are photo-graphic records of such materializations in motion, showing progressive stages of formation and later dissolution. (See the discussions in From the Unconscious to the Conscious by Gustave Geley, 1920, and Phenomena of Materialisation by Baron von Schrenck-Notzing, 1923.) These have, however, been questioned in this century as more of the clever devices and techniques for producing materializations have been uncovered.
The experiments of talented exponents of out-of-the-body travel (astral projection ) suggest that phantom clothing may be a mental creation or in some cases simply the human aura. The question is discussed by Sylvan J. Muldoon and Hereward Carrington in the book The Projection of the Astral Body (1929). According to Muldoon,
"I have noticed that, as a rule, if my physical body were clad in a certain garb, my astral counterpart would be clothed in an identical garb. I say as a rule. But again, there have been many exceptions to that rule—which demonstrates the eccentricities of the controlling intelligence! Sometimes the physical body will be clothed, and the astral body will be clothed in a different manner, e.g. a sort of flimsy gauzy white. This is not at all unusual, and is perhaps the reason why 'ghosts' have invariably become identified with white garments. Sometimes this astral garment is mistaken by observers for an 'aura,' and sometimes the aura is mistaken for the garment of white. There is a distinction…. One can be nude in the astral body and the aura would then act as clothing. In fact, it is my belief that the clothing is formed from the aura."
Muldoon, Sylvan J., and Hereward Carrington. The Projection of the Astral Body. London: Rider, 1929.