The Poison Dress

An Urban Legend

The Poison Dress
Lisa Kimmell/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Also known as "The Poisoned Dress," "Embalmed Alive," and "Dressed to Kill"

Example:
Submitted by a reader, March 1999...

I remember what I consider to be an urban legend that circulated when I was younger, always around prom time. If I remember correctly, it was about a girl who wanted to go to the prom, but she was very poor. Well, she decided to save some money and go to the pawn shop and buy a secondhand dress. She bought a beautiful blue dress, went to the prom and had a wonderful time. The next day, her mom found her dead in her bed. When the doctors examined her, they found traces of embalming fluid in her body that had soaked through her pores when she danced. They went to the pawn shop and found that the dress had come from an undertaker's assistant who had stolen the dress of a corpse and hocked it for money.


Example:
From the Indiana State University Folklore Archives, 1970...

This lady died, and she wasn't very old. A couple of her sisters went out to buy a dress to bury her in, and they couldn't decide between this yellow one or the purple one, so they took both of them with them to get approval from the rest of the family. They left both the dresses at the funeral home and later decided on the purple one, so they called the undertaker. I don't know if the undertaker didn't understand, but he had the yellow dress on her the next morning when the family came in. They told him about the mistake, and he exchanged the dresses, and they returned the yellow one to the store. A few days later a girl bought the yellow dress and wore it to a dance. During the dance she began sweating because the place was really full. After a few minutes she dropped dead. The stuff the undertaker had used had been so thick on the dress that it had killed her.


Analysis: Sometimes it's a blue dress, sometimes a yellow one, sometimes the crux of the narrative is a white wedding dress. The particulars vary but the denouement is always the same: a woman dies, poisoned by her own dress, a secondhand garment whose previous wearer had been a corpse.

Folks have been telling the story since the 1930s, though the "poisoned clothing" motif dates back much further -- to ancient Greece, in fact, and the myth of Medea.

As it was told by the Greek playwright Euripides in the 5th century B.C., the "witch goddess" Medea murdered Glauce, her rival for Jason's hand, by presenting her with a poisoned dress as a wedding gift. The dress burned Glauce alive (see also: Hercules and the robe of Nessus).

Inasmuch as the modern tale hinges on the supposed deadliness of physical contact with embalming fluid (or straight formaldehyde, in some variants), folklorists have long regarded it as apocryphal. "As for the threat of real embalming fluid," Jan Harold Brunvand wrote in a 1992 analysis of the legend, "I once heard from a journalist who had asked a mortician about this point in the story. The mortician opened a bottle of the fluid and splashed some over his own face, saying, 'Does this answer your question?'" According to safety information provided by manufacturers, prolonged skin contact with embalming fluid may cause "irritation in hypersensitive individuals," but not death.

Some commentators have pointed out that early variants of the story name specific department stores at which the tainted dress was supposedly purchased, concluding that its original purpose may have been to malign particular businesses.

Not that I find this implausible, but I wonder if it doesn't miss the point.

The place of purchase varies in the telling, as do the type and color of the dress, the nature of the occasion for which it's bought, and the specific chemical(s) it's allegedly contaminated with. What doesn't vary are the claims that 1) the dress had been previously worn by a corpse, and 2) the next person to wear it wound up equally dead.

I believe this story expresses, above all, a fundamental horror of death itself, which is why we're still sharing it some eighty years after it was first told.

Sources and further reading:

Timeworn Tale of 'Poison Dress' Is a Dead Giveaway as a Legend
By Jan Harold Brunvand, Deseret News, 31 January 1992

Hoosier Folk Legends
Ed. by Ronald L. Baker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.

215

Euripides' 'Medea'
About.com: Ancient/Classical History

Last updated 01/31/15