Having emerged in the wake of punk during the 1980s, the contemporary goth scene has existed for more than two decades, as a visually spectacular form of youth culture, whose members are most immediately identified by the dark forms of glamour displayed in their appearance.
Goth or Gothic Revival?
Extensive links are sometimes drawn between goth style and various “gothic” movements and individuals throughout history associated with themes such as elegance, decadence, and death. Gavin Baddeley has detailed a linear progression of gothic culture that ends with present-day goths, having journeyed through twentieth century horror genres in television and cinema, through various examples of literature and fashion from the preceding two hundred years and finally back to the “grotesque” art and sculpture credited to the original fourth century goths. The notion that what is known as goth fashion in the early 2000s is merely the latest revival of a coherent centuries-old tradition has undoubted appeal and convenience, even to some enthusiasts for the subculture. The reality, though, is that they owe a greater debt to post-1960s developments in popular music culture than to literary, artistic, or cinematic traditions.
A selection of British bands that appeared prior to, during, and after the late 1970s punk era set the tone for the goth subculture that was to emerge. Crucial ingredients were provided by the deep-voiced feminine glamour of David Bowie, the disturbing intensity and eclecticism of late 1970s Iggy Pop, and the somber angst-ridden despair of Joy Division. The key direct founders of goth, though, were former punks Siouxsie and the Banshees, whose style began to take on a decidedly sinister tone toward the early 1980s, and Bauhaus, whose self-conscious emphasis upon funereal, macabre sounds and imagery was epitomized in the now legendary record “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” As the dark, feminine appearance and imagery associated with such bands began to be taken up by their fans, the new “scene” received extensive coverage in the music press. By the mid-1980s, the deep vocals, jangling guitars, and somber base lines of The Sisters of Mercy alongside black clothes, long coats, and dark shades, had established them as the archetypal “goth rock” band. A period of chart success for the Sisters, alongside The Mission, Fields of the Nephilim, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, would ensure that toward the end of the 1980s goth enjoyed significant international exposure. Through the 1990s, however, the subculture existed in a rather more underground form, with occasional moments of mass exposure provided by high-profile artists such as Marilyn Manson and through the borrowing of goth style by emerging metal genres and, intermittently, by major fashion labels.
Consistent with this emphasis upon sounds and appearances emerging from the music industry, the goth scene has consistently been focused, first and foremost, around a blend of music, fashion, pubs, and nightclubs. As such, it would be more usefully seen in the context of punk, glam, skate, and other contemporary style subcultures, than that of ancient tribes or nineteenth-century poets. Yet this should not be taken to imply that previous “gothic” movements are somehow irrelevant here. Most notably, it is clear that goth musicians and fans have drawn—sometimes “ironically,” sometimes not—upon imagery associated with horror fiction in both literary and cinematic forms. Beyond a general emphasis upon black hair and clothing, this has manifested itself, for both males and females, in the form of ghostly white faces offset by thick dark eyeliner and lipstick. As if the vampire link were not clear enough, some have sported even more overt signifiers, from crosses to bats, to plastic fangs. For others, there has been a tendency to adapt elements of the traditional bourgeois fashions associated with vampire fiction, something often mediated through the wardrobes of such cinema blockbusters as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Interview with the Vampire (1994). Obvious examples here would include corsets, bodices, and lacy or velvet tops and dresses. Furthermore, although it is seldom regarded as pivotal to subcultural participation, many goths enjoy directly consuming and discussing horror fiction in both its literary and cinematic forms.
Yet there is more to goth fashion than this. The subcul-ture’s emphasis upon the somber and the macabre has been accompanied by consistent evidence of other themes that fit rather less neatly with the notion of a linear long-term history of gothic. For example, an emphasis upon particular forms of femininity, for both sexes, goes far beyond the macabre angst and romanticism associated with vampire fiction. Notably, for some years, PVC skirts, tops, corsets, and collars have been among the most popular styles of clothing for goths of both genders, something that borrows more from the contemporary fetish scene than it does from traditional gothic fiction. Links with fetishism, punk, and rock culture more generally can also be demonstrated by the consistent display of facial piercing, tattoos, dyed hair, and combat pants by goths. Indeed, one of the most popular types of clothing among goths has consistently been T-shirts displaying band logos, something distinctive to the goth scene in the specific artist name and design, but otherwise comparable with other music cultures. During the course of the 1990s, another contemporary influence from music culture established itself as central to the evolving goth style, particularly in Europe. In search of new directions in which to take a well-established set of looks and sounds, bands and their fans increasingly began to appropriate and adapt elements of dance culture into the goth sound and appearance. In addition to the incorporation of mechanical dance beats and electronic sequences into otherwise gloom-ridden, sinister forms of music, “cybergoth” involved the juxtaposition of more established elements of goth fashion with reflective or ultraviolet-sensitive clothing, fluorescent makeup, and braided hair extensions.
Distinctiveness and Identity
In spite of its variety of influences, goth fashion is a contemporary style in its own right, which has retained significant levels of consistency and distinctiveness for over two decades. Put simply, since the mid 1980s, goths have always been easily recognized as such, both by one another and by many outsiders to their subculture. Attempts to interpret their distinctive appearance as communicating a morbid state of mind or a disturbed psychological makeup are usually misplaced. What is symbolized, though, is a defiant sense of collective identity, based upon a celebration of shared aesthetic tastes relating primarily to music, fashion, and nightlife (Hodkinson 2002).
Baddeley, Gavin. Goth Chic: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Dark Culture. London: Plexus, 2002.
Hodkinson, Paul. Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture. Oxford: Berg, 2002.
Mercer, Mick. Gothic Rock Black Book. London: Omnibus Press, 1988.
____. Gothic Rock: Everything You Wanted to Know but Were Too Gormless to Ask. Birmingham: Pegasus, 1991.
Thompson, Dave. The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock. London: Helter Skelter, 2002.