I have a theory that some people are simply born to be Goth. Long before I knew of such a subculture, I was, by virtue of natural inclination, compelled to seek out the dark, the morbid, and the theatrical. These are the mainstays of ‘the Gothic’, a darkly romantic movement within art, music, fiction and fashion.
My gateway music into all things Goth was The Cure’s 1989 album Disintegration, back in my undergraduate art school days — which is, as far as anyone is concerned, precisely the right place to discover the angst-ridden wails of Robert Smith. Similar bands, such as Bauhaus, Joy Division, and the Sisters of Mercy, soon followed. While I was not then– nor am presently — a daily devotee to dressing exclusively in the Goth style, I have held a continued fascination in all things related to the Goth subculture ever since those early, fateful days of art school.
Fashion is critical for the Goth, with adherence to a particular mode of dress strict, to the point of orthodoxy. There is, as it turns out, not one type of Goth, but several. These include the Classic Goth, the Romantigoth, the Cybergoth, Fetish Goth, Vampire Goth, Glitter (or Perky) Goth, Victorian Goth, Steampunk, Gothabilly, Gothic Lolita, and…well, the list is long, indeed. Below is a brief description of some of my personal favourite modes of Goth dress.
Classic (or Traditional) Goth
The Goth subculture evolved from Punk in the early 1980s, with the London club The Batcave ostensibly functioning as its musical and stylistic home base. Famous club regulars included musicians such as Robert Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Steve Severin, Marc Almond and Nick Cave. Collectively, their dark, moody and often somber music and penchant for theatricality shaped this new subculture, creating its very distinctive look and feel. While Punks were angry anarchists, Goths were melancholic fatalists.
The fashion of the Classic Goth was heavily influenced by British-based Punk. Fishnet, leather, and piercings were prominent, and the colour black was worn, head-to-toe, with slavish devotion. BDSM paraphernalia, such as black leather slave collars, corsets and harnesses, was also common. Hair was very big and very, very teased (it was the ’80s, after all) and make-up was heavy and often exaggerated. Trendsetters like Siouxsie Sioux served as models for the uniform of the Classic Goth female: black, spiky-teased hair, fishnet, leather, studded belts, wristbands and collars, dark, heavy eye make-up and thickly lined, deep red lips.
One of the biggest influences on Gothic fashion has been the imagery in Gothic literature and their movie counterparts, particular that of Victorian writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker. Victorian fashions like corsets, lace, frock coats and pale skin are popular throughout the scene, but maybe none wear them with as much style as the Victorian Goth.
Like their Victorian role models, the Victorian Goths wish to convey an image of decorum and dignity. Clothes must be elegant and, for many, historically accurate. Ball dress and mourning garb are particularly prominent in the scene.
Victorian Goths may also indulge in activities that were popular in Victorian high society, including theatre, masquerades, tea parties and poetry. And, naturally, any kind of Dickensian or other Victorian festival that gives them an excuse to parade around in costume.
As for music, opera and classical are the true Victorian Gothic genres, but Victorian-inspired bands such as Rasputina are also acceptable.
The antiquated, refined elegance of Victorian Goth and a rough, edgy futurism may seem a completely incompatible combination. But, thanks to a particular genre of fantasy, the two have been successfully wedded to create the Steampunk Goth.
Steampunk is, in essence, science fiction that takes place in the low-tech setting of the past — very often the Victorian era. In Steampunk, you may find steam-powered robots, clockwork computers and complex contraptions made from wood, brass and wheels. The merging of Victorian imagery with quirky technology is doubtlessly of huge appeal to many Goths, but perhaps the most important links between Steampunk and Goth culture are the Victorian writers who inspired the genre, including Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe.
Steampunk Goth fashion is highly creative, incorporating elements that evoke Victorian technology such as clocks, keys and cogs. Although Steampunk is not a music scene, acts such as Rasputina, Emilie Autumn and Abney Park have all been cited as having Steampunk appeal.
While largely inspired by the Western Goth movement, the Gothic Lolita is a wholly Japanese creation. Inspired by Visual Kei and cosplay, the Lolita tries to closely emulate a demure, doll-like Victorian girl. Modesty and elegance are critical, and little or no skin should be exposed in Lolita costumes.
The Gothic Lolita is the darker sister of the frothy-pink Sweet Lolita, and typically dresses in a combination of black and white, or entirely in black. Eyes tend to be dark and smoky but, on the whole, make-up tends more towards the natural tones rather than the theatricality of Goth “white face” — which wouldn’t work on Asian skin, anyway.
This style has recently come full circle, with Westerners now borrowing fashion elements from the Japanese. Westernized versions of Lolita fashion tend to minimize the girlish frills and add an element of coquettish sex appeal.
What do you get if you mix Elvis Presley, The Cramps, a bunch of old horror movies and a splash of lounge? Bizarrely, you get Gothabilly – a rare and exotic breed of Goth with rather eclectic tastes in both music and wardrobe.
With styles originating from “Rockabilly” (American 1950s rock n roll) and “Psychobilly” (1980s punk with a heavy rockbilly influence), Gothabilly is visually and musically a play on retro, kitsch aesthetics – but with a dark twist. Like Deathrock, which often shows many overlapping traits with Gothabilly, the music and imagery is frequently tongue-in-cheek and deliberately cheesy. As such, many Gothabilly bands sport such creative names as Nacho Knoche & The Hillbilly Zombies, Cult Of The Psychic Fetus, and Vampire Beach Babes.
Gothabillys tend to be some of the brighter Goths out there, with their vivid tattoos, cherry accessories and ubiquitous polka dot clothes.