Eiizabeth Short was only 22 when she was found in a Los Angeles parking lot in 1947, bludgeoned and slashed to death with her torso sliced in half.
It was one of the most sensational crimes of the century in America, and a creative newsman gave Elizabeth a catchy name that helped sell a lot of papers. She became The Black Dahlia, a household name the world over and the subject of endless, feverish speculation.
Incredibly, the indignities heaped upon the aspiring actress after death rivaled the suffering she must have endured in her final moments.
She was defamed relentlessly in the 1940s press, which concocted lurid fictions about her to explain the gruesome, unsolved crime. A common (and disproven) myth held that she was a prostitute whose reckless lifestyle somehow led to her wretched demise. Hollywood gobbled up the story and regurgitated it in several barely recognizable treatments that exaggerated her sexual adventures and added layers of tawdry, invented detail that would make even the tabloids blush.
Her killer was never found, and so no one ever paid for what was done to Elizabeth Short (above right). But countless journalists, actors, filmmakers, authors and opportunistic merchandisers have made millions from her agonies. There’s a jewelry brand called Black Dahlia and a heavy metal band that bears her name, too. She is, literally, a Hallowe’en costume.
Now poor Elizabeth has another distinction: she may be the only American murder victim to have a sexy lingerie line named after her.
Burlesque star Dita Von Teese introduced a Black Dahlia range this month as part of her eponymous lingerie brand, which is sold in Bloomingdales, Bare Necessities, Nordstrom, Journelle and many other retail chains around the world. It’s a black mesh set embroidered with floral lace, and retails for about $200 for a 3-piece ensemble.
Dita does not explain why she chose to name the set after the Black Dahlia case, and she did not respond to our request for comment.
[UPDATE: See Dita’s Twitter response below.]
Presumably, she used the Black Dahlia name as a way to evoke the glamorous culture of 1940s Hollywood, which is the kind of historic reference that Dita strives for in her faux vintage lingerie brand. It’s also possible she did so without knowing the sordid details behind that notorious name, although that’s unlikely given the Black Dahlia‘s enduring media profile.
Besides, Dita is a self-made vintage fashion icon whose knowledge of and affinity for old Hollywood and the lavish lifestyles of femme fatale starlets is well documented. She references that film noir world frequently in her lingerie collections, photo assignments and burlesque shows and posed (above) for a convincingly retro photo to promote the new Black Dahlia ensemble.
This is not the first time that the undergarment industry has — perhaps unthinkingly — tried to profit from Elizabeth Short’s horrific demise. A Swedish retro label called Vintage Wonderland sells old-fashioned Black Dahlia nylon stockings, while the plus-size retailer Hips and Curves offered a Black Dahlia velvet corset a few years ago. And the renowned swimwear brand Gottex still sells a flashy Black Dahlia line that has no vintage style elements whatsoever.
What rationale could possibly explain a company’s choice to name sexy clothing after a young woman who was hacked to death? What other murder victim has been subject to such callous treatment post mortem?
In Dita’s case, surely it was not her intention to glamorize or glorify the cruel fate of Elizabeth Short, but it’s shockingly insensitive nonetheless and an uncharacteristic lapse in judgment from an exceptionally popular style leader.
[UPDATE: In a Tweet responding to our query, Dita says the collection was named for “lace that looks like black dahlia flowers.” See the images below and draw your own conclusions.]
One of the great tragedies of Elizabeth Short’s life is that the mythology surrounding her murder eventually dehumanized her, turning her into a juicy yarn that could be retold (and resold) for generations to come. Tortured in life, exploited in death, she became one of America’s most unsympathetic murder victims and a cautionary tale for adventurous young women everywhere.
For style hounds, the Black Dahlia — the manufactured media story, not the real person behind the name — came to symbolize the seductive underworld of sleaze and sin that characterized post-war L.A. and forms the backdrop for films like Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and Gangster Squad.
Lusty, dangerous and tempting fate, Elizabeth Short is not so much a person as a reference point for an era defined by its oversized fashions and boundless appetites.
In that context, perhaps The Black Dahlia was born to sell lingerie.