You Just Can’t Kill It
DON’T know how it happened. It felt more like a gradual, irresistible drift, but in retrospect, it might have been a sudden, overnight conversion. Maybe our local video store rented “The Hunger” one too many times.
Perhaps one teenager too many lay awake after midnight, unable to get Edward Gorey’s disturbing Black Doll image out of his head. Maybe a girl with 14 piercings in each ear sang Siouxsie and the Banshees’s “Cities in Dust” to her cat enough times to warp the entire light spectrum.
But there was a distinct point in San Francisco, in the late 1980s, when all the postpunk wardrobes of my extended tribe — a lower Haight-Ashbury aggregate of motorcyclists, college dropouts, would-be artists and nightclub workers — turned as abruptly and completely black as if a wall of ink had crept up from the Pacific and saturated everything, save for occasional outcroppings of little silver skulls.
Secretly I nursed grandiose ideas that my funereal vintage attire aligned me with beatniks, existentialists, Zen Buddhists, French Situationists, 1930s movie stars and samurai. (In reality, my style could probably have been more aptly described as “Biker Madonna with mood disorder.”)
We were all young and poor: If your clothes were all black, everything matched and was vaguely elegant (especially if you squinted). Entropy was a thrifty, built-in style; if your tights ripped into cobwebs, that, too, was a look.
We lived in squalid tenements and worked until 4 a.m. Goth was a fashion response to doing infrequent laundry and never seeing the sun. A Northern California anti-tan could be an advantage if you made yourself even paler. On the bright side, our new monochromism was helpful to community building: We were able to recognize our neighbors as well as if we had all adopted regional folk costume. You knew you could rely on your blackly attired ilk to answer questions like, Hey, where should I go to get my 1978 Triumph Bonneville repaired/get green dreadlocks/get the word Golgotha tattooed in five-inch letters across my back/buy jimson weed/cast a reverse love spell for under $14/(insert your vaguely but harmlessly sinister demimonde activity here)?
“ ‘Gothic’ is an epithet with a strange history, evoking images of death, destruction, and decay,” the fashion historian Valerie Steele writes in “Gothic: Dark Glamour” (Yale University Press), a new coffee-table book, written with Jennifer Park. An exhibition of the same name, curated by Ms. Steele at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, unpacks the evolution of goth in fashion from its early beginnings in Victorian mourning to its most current expressions.
“It is not just a term that describes something (such as a Gothic cathedral), it is also almost inevitably a term of abuse, implying that something is dark, barbarous, gloomy and macabre,” she wrote. “Ironically, its negative connotations have made it, in some respects, ideal as a symbol of rebellion. Hence its significance for youth subcultures.”
But goth fashion is not just for maladjusted latchkey kids. A recent proliferation of Haute Goth on the runways of designers like Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens, Gareth Pugh and the spidery crochet webs of Rodarte (not to mention various darkly inclined Belgian designers) suggests, once again, that black still is, and probably always will be the new black.
The goth subculture, however, for those who live it, is more than the sum of its chicken bones, vampire clichés and existential pants. It remains a visual shortcut through which young persons of a certain damp emotional climate can broadcast to the other members of their tribe who they are. Goth is a look that simultaneously expresses and cures its own sense of alienation.
This sentiment was echoed by Wendy Jenkins of Powell, Ohio, whom I contacted via a goth group on Facebook. “To me, Goth is like an escape,” wrote Ms. Jenkins, who is 18 and attends Olentangy Liberty High School.
“No one really judges each other,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter if you are tall, short, black, white, heavy, thin. Goth can fit everyone! I think it is a great way to bond with others who are different and who are just like you at the same time! Because we are wearing black most the time we are EZ to find!”
Missy Graf, 20, of Edmonton, Alberta, became fascinated by the goths at her Catholic high school. “One of the goth girls was in the choir with me,” she wrote in an e-mail message, “and we talked about depression and God’s apparent absence from her life. It was one of my first encounters with the world outside of the ‘Christian bubble.’ ”
“I guess I slowly became (eh-em) ‘goth’ starting a year and a half ago,” she added. “I was afraid of what my mom would think (she is still convinced that goth is associated with Satan-worshipping and that dying my hair black is one more step into the oblivion ... oh mom! You dye your hair red. Don’t you know that Satan panties are red, not black?). Whatever. Eventually I got to the point where I stopped trying to make people accept me.”
The Bay Area was home to a number of influential goths. Courtney Love successfully introduced the kinderwhore look: filmy Victorian nightgowns with fright-wig doll hair and heavy makeup. The band Specimen kept an apartment in the Mission District strewn with artificial cobwebs. Diamanda Galas frequently gabbled in demonic tongues on concert stages with her grand piano. I was privileged to direct the poet/performance artist/goth icon Danielle Willis in “Breakfast in the Flesh District,” her candidly hilarious, autobiographical one-woman show about working in the Tenderloin’s strip clubs as a self-styled vampire.
Ms. Willis, who embraced goth the second she saw Tim Curry’s “sweet transvestite from Transylvania” in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” used to write great articles on the ironies of goth fashion, like “Lord Damien Stark’s Makeup Tips for the Bleak” (originally printed in Ghastly Magazine):
“Whiteface should create the illusion that you really are that pale, and not that you have a bunch of makeup from Walgreens caked all over your face. Done badly, Gothic makeup can look painfully stupid. After spending money on a decent base, take the trouble to apply it evenly. It’s appalling how many Goths overlook something so basic and vital to their entire aesthetic. Equally bad and unfortunately just as frequent is the tendency to overpowder and the tendency to end one’s pallor at the jawbone. I can understand someone having difficulty with liquid eyeliner, but some mistakes are just inexcusably stupid. Don’t make them.”
I just wore black, but Danielle Willis was a Satanic blood fetishist who had her own 19th-century phlebotomy kit, permanent fangs dentally bonded to her eyeteeth and serious drug problems. I once teased her about her decorative penchant for red velvet chaises, heavy curtains, ball-and-claw side tables, stigmata and other forms of morbid opulence, saying that they didn’t necessarily mean she was goth, just Italian. She clocked me pretty hard.
THE origins of contemporary goth style are found in the Victorian cult of mourning.
A Victorian mourning dress from the 1880s.
“Victorians had a joke when women got into fashionable mourning dress — they called it ‘the trap rebaited.’ ” Ms. Steele said, showing me one of the highlights of the F.I.T. exhibition: a 1905 Victorian cult-of-mourning gown by Desbuisson & Hudelist that was off-the-shoulder, had a plunging neckline and was covered with matte-black sequins.
The show also makes a healthy foray into what Ms. Steele calls the “diabolism, dandyism and decadence” of Dracula. “Just as the devil is the prince of darkness, the dandy is the black prince of elegance,” she explained. “And the paradigm of the gothic man is a dandy vampire aristocrat.”
The vampire introduces the idea of the “erotic macabre” into gothic fashion. There are stunning examples in the show of vampiric sex appeal — e.g., a voluminous blood-red gown by John Galliano for Dior, printed with a Marquis de Sade quotation: “Is it not by murder that France is free today?” (Which, accessorized with its huge chain and cross made of railway spikes, would inspire even the Easter Bunny to absinthe and Emocore.)
One display acknowledges the fetish culture’s influence on goth (“kinky nihilism,” as Ms. Steele describes it): buckled PVC corsets and other snazzy bondage accouterments in addition to the usual Morticia Addams styles.
But to Wendy Jenkins, vampires represent more than just a hot batch of spooky formalwear. They provide a romantic narrative for sympathizing with her own perceived abnormalities. She wrote to me: “I think vampires are freeking sweet because they have such true emotions that no mere mortals can express! I too at times think I am a vampire being with my hate of garlic and how my eyes r sensitive to light.”
This sense of bathos-dripping, emotional fragility draws no small ridicule to the idea of “goth.” The word still brings to mind Anne Rice à la Renaissance Faire, moody bodice-ripper connotations, as well as ruffled shirts, tarot cards and sad girls who wistfully change their names to Pandora and Esmeralda (a tendency finally ridiculed to death in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch Goth Talk, with its teenage hosts, Azrael Abyss, “Prince of Sorrows,” and his friend, Circe Nightshade).
Nocturne Midnight, a k a Josh Klooster from Millet, Alberta, a 17-year-old student at Leduc Composite High School in Edmonton (and another goth in the Facebook group), prefers “a suave gentleman style,” he wrote. “Dress shirt, dress pants, top hat, spiked collar, light make-up. It makes me feel like an aristocrat.”
Tia Senat, 15, a sophomore at Ellsworth High School in Ellsworth, Kan., identifies her goth-influenced style as “emo.”
“Some Goth people seem different, but really they’re just normal people hidden behind a sort of personality ‘curtain,’ ” she said. “Emo is being extremely sensitive and showing your emotions.
“What drew me to it was because it basically explained how I acted. You can’t just decide to be. It really just happens. Many people believe that all teens such as me participate in self-mutilation, or cutting, and that they whine about their life and how bad it is compared to other people. Not all Emo kids do this unless something very very traumatic happens, believe me.”
Mr. Midnight takes exception. “Emos tend to take themselves far too seriously,” he said. “Every emotion they have is one extreme or another. Extremely happy, crushingly sad, screaming rage. Just too much emotion. All the time.”
Looking back at my own experience, it seems that black clothes were a response to certain catastrophic influences that came up with terrible regularity. We had all lost, or were in the process of losing, friends to AIDS, addictions and accidents. There were always disappointments in romance, and no surplus of mental health or functional families. Boots, black and leather provided a certain group with a certain emotional exoskeleton, a blustering attempt to express an edgy, careless willingness to hurl ourselves into oblivion. But the writing on the collective black flag, for all our reckless posturing, may have been best articulated as: “Ow, I’m hypersensitive. Please don’t hurt me again.”
Nocturne Midnight explains the importance of being goth: “It’s a part of who I am,” he said. “Nothing else worked. Goth just seemed to fit. I suppose Goth invokes in me a feeling of happiness, of belonging.”
Later Wendy Jenkins wrote to tell me: “Case you didn’t know, I am in a wheelchair.”
There are certainly worse ways to misspend a youth than living it in a vampire costume. After all, sometimes the most sympathetic character in a story is the villain.
But being goth doesn’t mean you have no sense of humor.
“Gothic style should be as opulent, decadent and individual as possible,” Danielle Willis wrote. “If you’re not up to making the effort necessary to carry off this most high maintenance of affectations, try wearing plaid shirts and listening to Nirvana instead.”