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Goth Fashion: From Batcave to darkwave and beyond

Martin Meister (late 1980s) in his own design, exhibited in in 1994 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Martin Meister (late 1980s) in his own design, exhibited in in 1994 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

For many of us the term goth conjures up images of pale figures clad in pitch-black or eerily quiet teenagers that are seemingly dressed for Halloween all year round. Of course, for others, it may spark recollections of stories about Germanic tribes whose clashes with the Roman Empire represent some of the most crucial turning points in world history. Regardless, if stereotypes are based on at least a kernel of truth, then the clichéd idea of young people who are more likely to attend rain-drenched cemeteries and abandoned Victorian manors than become varsity athletes or high-rolling yuppies, not that these things are mutually exclusive, does have some merit.

Though rooted in the late 70s British punk scene, especially the post-punk and art punk movements, goth is also influenced by glam rock and, to a lesser extent, new wave. However, as a distinguishable musically oriented subculture, goth really emerged in the 1980s, when its linchpin genre, gothic rock, flourished throughout the decade, quickly expanding to America and other countries.

At first it was represented by an array of groups: the notably gloomy post-punk bands like Bauhaus, The Cure, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees; the crusty and whacked out sounds of Alien Sex Fiend; the glam-esque Specimen; the harder and heavier rock of The Cult and The Sisters of Mercy; and the American deathpunk of 45 Grave and Christian Death. Nevertheless, in the 90s and 2000s the subculture trended towards dance, electronic, neoclassical, and even cabaret music. Beyond that, however, the core gothic culture, based around a series of aesthetically and stylistically similar bands and musical trends, began to take on new directions.

Because there’s considerable overlap between the goth subculture’s definitive musical expressions and related forms of music, it’s difficult - if not impossible - to sort out what is or isn’t “true” goth. Ultimately, the issue seems to result in a sort of “no true Scotsman” debacle. And, just as goth has evolved and expanded musically, so have the iconic fashions of its subculture. For example, the signature look of the trad goths, best known to frequenters of the notorious London nightclub the Batcave (batcavers), is characterized by a mixture of punk fashion staples, to which the early 80s goth scene was undeniably attached. It includes lots of dark (black or near-black) and color-contrasting clothing as well as makeup.

The makeup was typically heavier than what was common for members of the core punk movement. This trend was especially evident in women, who sported thick black eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, and pearly white foundation, along with the stereotypical black lipstick. But men also partook in the fashion, mixing it with androgynous elements characteristic of the contemporaneous New Romantic Movement and glam rock present among the goths.

Other elements of fashion for punks, early goths, and especially the deathrockers included mohawks; torn or tight jeans; jackets—leather or denim, at times replete with band patches and various other additions; dyed and teased out hair; combat boots; all kinds of piercings; studded or spiked belts, bracelets, and chokers; and safety pins and zippers galore.

The style of deathrock fans also takes on everything characteristic of early goth fashion, but places an emphasis on edgier, D.I.Y., dilapidated, and “garage rock” looks, utilizing the “angry, young, and poor” ethos of foundational punk. This style of garb can be contrasted with the more art punk and post-punk-inspired side of the emergent goth movement. Those who favor this softer “side” of goth are generally more likely to display a more graceful and bohemian style of clothing that essentially mimics aspects of funerary attire as a way of championing the beauty of the macabre.

Of course, the functional wardrobes of deathrockers, Goths, and even horror-punks (think Misfits), will always include the aforementioned dark and contrasting colors, plus elements and accessories that accentuate an overall presentation of morbidity and “spookiness” that celebrates the bleaker side of life. However, deathrockers and horror-punks might be just a tad more likely to sport fishnets, ripped tights, slashed tops, shirts or blouses with screen-prints of bones and bats, and—as a flare uniquely attributed to deathrock culture—the idiosyncratic death-hawk, which is a wider and rattier mohawk that’s often paired with a shock or two of hair hanging down from near the temples.

The post-punk look, meanwhile, feels forlorn and yet finely adorned - gloomier and less manic than that of the deathrockers - but also more likely to feature a simple and sullen charm which seems lacking in the in-your-face, agitated, near-dystopian fashion of the deathrock and horror punk scenes.

Goth fashion is clearly heavily inspired by horror fiction, and gothic and vampire horror in particular—traditionally the black-and-white classics of cinema’s Golden Age but also a number of those leading from them up until and including the 80s. Bela Lugosi (1882 - 1956) and Vincent Price (1911 - 1993) might well figure into the traditional goth’s pantheon of favorite actors. The image of Morticia Addams, perhaps drinking from a pewter goblet or carrying a candelabra, might be a little more likely to provide inspiration to a goth than to non-creatures of the night; and one might find that a penny dreadful, a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), or a volume of Edgar Allan Poe’s tales better suits a self-styled goth than, say, Cervantes (1547- 1616) or Hemingway (1899 - 1961).

Victorian goth, as it’s called, is fashion resembling the garb of mid-to-late 19th century Brits, adding to it the blackness and moroseness characteristic of the subculture. Whether ball gowns, corsets, lace gloves or cravats, canes, waistcoats and pocket watches, the objective for those sporting the Victorian goth look is to blend the previously established goth chic with aspects of fashion from the bygone British era known for Jack the Ripper, the first World’s Fair, and the custom of afternoon teatime. All Victorian goth-type fashion can be found featured in many examples of popular media, notably the latest film iteration of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and the video game Bloodborne (2015).

Then there are the cybergoths who emerged around the 90s. More firmly based in a particular music scene, cybergoth fashion is essentially the aesthetic opposite of Victorian goth; instead of dwelling in the past, cybergoths push forward. They tend to display a mixture of belted, buckled, neon rave apparel, and “kandi” - rave accoutrements and brightly colored jewelry. Cybergoth fashion also seems to concern itself with reflectivity that is achieved by adding artificial textiles, like plastic, rubber, latex, and nylon to the mix. This doubtlessly increases the trippy, light-bending effects so popular at and characteristic of their dance shows, which they elevate to the next level by taking on a quasi-dystopian edge; they often appear at shows in their characteristic facemasks, goggles, and unique style of faux dreadlocks (known as cyberlox), giving the impression that, mixed in with the black and reflective textures of much of their clothing, is a swath of anarchy and the embrace of a bleaker, harsher, but no less bombastic and exciting, future.

But, what about the goths that are so dedicated to their style and/or subculture that they want to bring it with them wherever they go? That’s where corp goth (an abbreviation of “corporate goth”) steps in. Though not a definite fad or derived from any musical movement, corp goths may sport extra eyeliner and mascara; black velvet and other dark fabrics; incorporate blood red accents and accessories like chains; as well as dyed black hair that’s swept back but trimmed and styled to suit an occasional board meeting. The style takes motivation and sometimes meticulous planning on the part of the adventurous employee. Yet, when it works, it really works. Sometimes, corp goth is so subdued in its “gothiness” that it’s difficult to determine whether an outfit is really gothic at all, or merely darker business attire. But corp goth is a also style that some don outside of work, where outside the limits imposed by the office environment the goth aspect of the fashion may be further emphasized.

Goth has many iterations and has given birth to a number of stereotypical aesthetics and forms of presentation—certainly far too many to list here—ultimately as diverse and numerous as the goths themselves. But for those interested in exploring this subject further, the fashions associated with darkwave, gothic lolita, industrial and industrial dance culture (rivethead culture), the New Romantics, the S&M or fetish scene, and visual kei are all worth checking out. Goth remains a unique and diverse subculture, and one of the most recognizable and aesthetically influential countercultures the world has ever borne witness to. Surely it will continue to influence fashion well into the future.


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