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Take Back Halloween Costume: Lizzie Borden

As we near the month of October, Halloween costumes often come up for discussion. A site called Take Back Halloween has some interesting suggestions on costumes for women that they say are to “popularize knowledge of the past—the real stuff”, such as Lizzie Borden.

Lizzie Borden (1860-1927) is one of the most famous crime figures in American history. As the ditty goes, “Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her father 41.” Actually, it was her step-mother, not her mother; and the actual number of whacks was 18 and 11, respectively. More to the point, no one really knows if Lizzie was guilty.

Note how particular they are about setting the record straight. They also don’t sell anything directly but instead offer a specific shopping list of items, which point to other commerce sites.

1. Victorian costume dress with leg-o-mutton sleeves. This is being sold as a “vampiress” dress, but the late Victorian styling makes it a convenient get-up for Lizzie Borden. Unfortunately it’s rather small, so our next options are for you to assemble your own late-Victorian look.
2. Victorian blouse in scarlet. The store also offers these in black, white, and calico prints.
3. Victorian walking skirt in black.

Er, wait a minute. Black dress? Where does a black dress fit in a site dedicated to preserving history?

The “real stuff” based on knowledge of the past is a faded light blue dress, covered in paint and torn, that is infamously burned with a gas oven…as described within any of a huge number of history collections.

[Alice Russell, a family friend] recounted that when she asked Lizzie what she was doing with the blue dress, she replied, “I am going to burn this old thing up; it is covered with paint.” On cross-examination, defense attorney George Robinson attempted through his questions to suggest that a guilty person seeking to destroy incriminating evidence would be unlikely to do it in so open a fashion as Lizzie allegedly did.

A faded light blue garment in the trial was the pivotal piece of evidence in the “burned dress” defence.

Of course, costumes aren’t often very accurate, despite all kinds of marketing claims. A fake axe with fake blood, while pretending to be someone who died in 1927…none of it is going to be “real stuff.” Yet someone interested in the actual story might appreciate at least knowing the right color. It also is a great way to distinguish your Lizzie Bordens from your typically black-dressed vampiresses and witches.

Another example: Themistoclea is maybe assumed by some to have worn brown or black, based on pictures of objects from ancient Greece. However, her costume would be far more likely a red or green hue. In other words, if you care about being more “real” and knowledgeable don’t follow the instructions on Take Back Halloween. They tell you to order brown. Pick the “grape” colored cloth instead. Really.

Posted in History, Poetry, Security.

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  1. Jessica Oliveri says

    This is interesting to me. I was born and raised in Fall River, MA and visited the Fall River Historical Society many times when I was growing up to learn about Lizzie Borden. After she was acquitted of murder, she purchased a home on French St. called Maplecroft. One of my best friends lived there when we were teens – not much had been updated, only lightly restored. Several years ago, a woman in TX purchased the home – rumor is, she will make a commercial venture of it

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