Goth. It’s the 19th Century actress Sarah Bernhardt wearing a stuffed bat and sleeping in a coffin. It’s the macabre, greyscale illustrations of Edward Gorey. It’s a coal-eyed Siouxsie Sioux submerged in a bathtub full of flowers; an homage to Ophelia. It’s The Horrors in their winkle-picker shoes singing “Sheena is a Parasite.” It’s Dicken’s Miss Havisham haunting her mansion in a decaying wedding dress. It’s the crows-nest hair of Robert Smith, Edward Scissorhands and a young and boisterous Nick Cave. It’s 1960’s horror movies and 1880’s literature. It’s the doom, dynamism and depths of the colour black.
Many subcultures are borne from a feeling of ‘otherness’; a means of outsiders banding together with a shared impetus and uniform. None more so than the Goths, a subculture forged from themes of clandestine mystery and melancholic romance.
Goth as a youth culture emerged in the 1970s, yet the ‘Gothic’ had already existed as a prevalent cultural theme two centuries prior. Taking inspiration from the Medieval and the morbid, the Gothic literature of the late 18th and 19th Centuries signalled a fascination with dark romanticism, science and the occult. Occupying the realm between “wonder and terror,” Gothic fiction gave way to Victorian ghost stories and the Hammer Horror films of the 1930s.
It wasn’t until 1967 when the Gothic was apparently applied to music; “Gothic rock” was allegedly formulated by music critic John Stickney when describing The Doors. The term reared its (black and knotted) head later that year, in reference to the captivating darkness of The Velvet Underground. Goth as a fully-fledged music genre ascended in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a sub-sect of punk splintered away from the brashness of gobbing to a realm of decay and decadence. Porcelain skin, eyes painted ebony and haunting, brooding songs; the wail of Siouxsie and the Banshees was a call to arms for young goths (despite Siouxsie’s disdain as being labelled the ‘goth-mother.’) The dour atmosphere of Joy Divison had a gothic lilt, The Cure were in the midst of their early Gothic phase (Robert Smith singing songs of ache and nightmares, his mouth smeared with dark lipstick), yet it was Northampton band Bauhuas’ 9-minute-long debut single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, which is widely considered Goth’s harbinger.
Tapping drum echoes and intricate, sinister guitars form like a mist for an agonising 3 minutes before vocalist Peter Murphy sings of dead flowers and black capes; lyrics of “the bats have left the tower, the victims have been bled” reading like the most sombre poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. Taking its name from the horror film actor Bela Lugosi, renowned for playing Dracula in the 1930s, with a record sleeve showing a colossal bat from the 1929 film ‘The Sorrows of Satan’, Bauhaus’ first release was a sensory assemblage of all that Goth would go on to represent. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was immortalised forevermore as a Gothic apex when a live rendition of the song was featured in the opening scene of ‘The Hunger’, a 1983 erotic horror starring Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as vampire lovers.
Like all subcultures, the Goths needed a communal dwelling they could haunt, this came in the form of The Batcave, which opened in July 1982 in London’s Soho. Entering through a hollowed-out coffin, the Batcave was home to those who had slipped between the cracks of the gritty brutality of Punk, and the frippery of the New Romantics. Here, torn bin liners were stapled to the walls and cheap spiderwebs hung from the ceiling as 8mm films played out in a dark cabaret attended by Siouxsie’s Banshees, Marc Almond and Nick Cave. So synonymous with the Goth moment, the “vampire punks” of this subculture’s first wave became known as “bat-cavers.” An escapist pursuit from the austerity of 1980’s Britain, Goths wore net veils and fishnets with antiquated mourning wear and disintegrating parasols. Crucifix chains and theatrical textures of dark satin and velvet would be worn with a face full of sharp contrasting make-up and crimped, back-combed, black-dyed hair.
Countless bands such as Specimen, (members of which founded The Batcave) The Birthday Party, The Damned, Alien Sex Fiend and The Sisters of Mercy proliferated Gothic traits. The Batcave closed in 1985 but the musical and aesthetic popularity of Goth’s initial incarnation now spread Stateside.
Propaganda Magazine, a counter-culture publication, created by Fred H Berger, was instructional for US Goths. Founded in 1982 and running until 2002, Propaganda was the longest running gothic subculture magazine; charting the rise of Goth from localised to globalised. Goth has recalibrated and rejuvenated in American death rock and industrial-goth music. The subcultural style has mutated into cyber-goth (bright hair, rubber, PVC and goggles), costume-goth (long layers, satin corsets and gloves), Emo (black skinny jeans and chipped, black nail varnish) and countless other distinctive gothic tribes.
Many of those who have been heralded and historicised as bastions of Goth are the most hesitant to be defined as such, noting it’s one-dimensional trappings of gloom. Furthermore, Goth can be viewed as one-dimensional in regards to multiculturalism, or a lack of such. In an article written for Medium, Shanna Collins certified the overlooked African origins of Gothic tropes; skulls and serpent imagery is rooted in indigenous spiritual tradition, as is the belief that the colours black and grey are associated with “the morbid, shadow aspects of life that are hidden from public consciousness.” Collins rightfully asserts that the earliest Goth song was penned in 1956 by Screamin’ J Hawkins’ ‘I Put a Spell on You.’ Lyrics seething with romance and witchcraft, a bone through his nose and clad in a cape, Hawkins’ is fundamental in the heritage of Goth.
Gothicism remains diluted yet prevalent; Nick Cave has gone from gothic ferocity (wearing leather trousers and dementedly screaming in The Birthday Party), to Southern Gothic, (the murder ballads and swampy imagery of The Bad Seeds) made sartorially manifest in his wife, Susie Cave’s, elegant “Vampire’s Wife” dresses. Loitering in the shadows of high fashion, the Goth can be seen in Alexander McQueen’s fascination with bloodthirsty fairy tales, Prada’s AW19 show (Wednesday Addam’s plaits and black lace dresses adorned with the face of Frankenstein’s monster) and the ghostly, baroque designs of Dilara Findikoglu.
Yet, Goth in its most authentic form remains tied to the misfit groups of youth culture. They can be seen skulking around Camden Market, or en masse at Whitby Goth Weekend, home to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. As enduring as its vampiric inspirations, Goth has propagated within popular culture. From the cinema of Tim Burton (Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice is surely the patron saint of gothic-girls) to the club kids wearing black in the hope to gain entry to Berlin’s notorious Berghain to Japan’s Gothic Lolitas looking like porcelain dolls in black bows – the Goth is surely the most pervasive and persisting of subcultures. Bauhaus sang it best: “Undead undead undead!”
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The Story of Subculture is a series of posts that research and report on the British subcultures of fashion and music.
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