Goth Bitches in Nightgowns

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The trauma that drives a stake through in the lives of a family in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House takes place in summer 1992, but you wouldn’t always know it by the clothes. Even with plenty of scenes following the adult characters in 2018, the art direction, costumes, and set dressing of Hill House itself impart an unmoored, out-of-time feeling. Like many a good Gothic drama before it, Hill House is a living thing. In stories from The Fall of the House of Usher to Wuthering Heights, great houses are used as a reflection (or magnification) of the hearts of their inhabitants. And the heart of Hill House, both the place and the show, is Carla Gugino’s Olivia.

Olivia’s character fits in another Gothic tradition – a certain type of extremely, almost anachronistically feminine women with high susceptibility to spooky meddling. I’m honestly not sure what to call this trope and I’ve had trouble finding scholarship on it. I noticed a trend in Gothic stories and those that take inspiration from the genre of female characters who are not the main actors or agents but are instrumental to the conflict. They usually die or are marked indelibly by the supernatural. It seems fundamentally different from fridging, though the fates of these women do tend to motivate other characters. They are often mothers, making this character type unique in that there’s not necessarily a hard line between the feminine power of a maiden and the feminine power of the maternal. What these characters share is an intentionally exaggerated femininity that marks them as more fragile, ethereal, or even less tied to this earth than others. And the nightgowns.

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When the Craine family – Hugh, Olivia, and their five children – move into Hill House, a ponytailed Olivia is wearing shorts and a tank top. In the few scenes that show her coming and going from the house or in a sound state of mind, she wears jeans or modern dresses. Olivia’s nerves deteriorate the further she’s pulled under the influence of Hill House’s creeping terrors. This shift in her character is marked by her wardrobe changing almost exclusively to frothy negligees, long robes, and bare feet, her hair long and wild. The house preys on her anxieties as a mother, but the more room she gives those fears, the more lost she is to her actual family. She increasingly looks like part of the house itself.

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Olivia’s transformation is echoed in her youngest daughter, Nell. The most deeply traumatized and fragile of the adult Craine women, she is also given the most feminine styling. When she is drawn back to Hill House – and ultimately her doom – the first thing she does is change into one of her late mother’s nightgowns. Gothic fiction, of course, is far from the only thing to expressly associate the feminine with the flighty and impractical. Culture at large does plenty of that. But I do find the nightgown as Gothic uniform a unique expression of this.

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The Ghost’s Sweetheart (just trying out names for this trope here) is often contrasted by a more down to earth female character – one who gets to survive, usually. Dracula‘s Lucy Westenra is one of the best examples of the ethereal and doomed woman. Sweet, girlish, and naive, she is a foil to the more practical Mina Murray. In Francis Ford-Coppola’s buckwild two-and-a-half hour Mina X Dracula AMV Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the difference is beautifully done with makeup and wardrobe. Lucy’s violation that leads to her death (and undeath) happens in a revealing red nightgown. In scenes where Lucy and Mina are together, Lucy shows more skin and tends to wear her hair down, where Mina is literally more buttoned up. When Mina is tempted by Dracula, her styling reflects it with looser dresses and a more Pre-Raphaelite hairstyle. For a non supernatural example, think of “plain” and headstrong Jane Eyre vs. Rochester’s first wife, the mad Bertha Mason, a caricature of the beautiful Gothic feminine locked away with her unkempt hair and dirty nightgown.

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One of the most powerful and disturbing mainstays of Gothic fiction is how it turns concepts of home and family, things that are meant to bring safety and comfort, on their sinister heads. Nightgowns are home clothes. They’re vulnerable. When you put on a nightgown and let your hair down, you have the intention to nest, settle in, and be in a safe environment. They are the opposite of something you would wear to face danger, let alone escape. Crimson Peak (above) plays into and subverts this somewhat by having its independent-minded heroine accomplish things and solve the big mystery – with the film’s ghosts as her aid – in particularly impractical déshabillé. The enduring image of the “heroine fleeing a house in a nightgown” that marks the covers of so many Gothic romances is still powerful because it communicates such a clear and upsetting idea. A home isn’t something you want to flee, and the clothing we wear when we feel most at home isn’t what we want to run away in.

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