Black on Black
She glides by, brushing a stray strand of jet black hair behind her ear. You glimpse a silver, Celtic cross dangling from an ear with several studs. She talks with her friend, her lips as black as coal and contrasting with her pale complexion. Her eyes, enhanced by colored contacts, are a vibrant green. They pop from the deep purple eye shadow so deftly applied by her experienced hand. She appears taller than she is as her laced boots have an ample lift. Her seemingly endless legs are clad in purple and white striped stockings. You embarrassingly sneak a quick peek at bare skin just beneath her short and frilly, black skirt. She wears an ornate corset embroidered with matching, deep purple. Over this she wears a woman’s jacket, also black, also ornately decorated in skull buttons or similar ooky spooky tokens. You might even be so observant as to spot the label, Tripp.
You’ve just spotted a goth, and not just any goth, a well dressed goth.
It remains a well-established contention within the goth scene as to just how important is fashion. In the camp of the fashionista the argument is that clothing trends pre-existed bands like Joy Division and Bauhaus. The iconic look of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is inspired by Ed Wood regular and TV personality, Vampira. Vampira’s look was inspired by Morticia Addams, who first appeared in The New Yorker in 1938. The gothic look goes back to the Victorian and Elizabethan times. Even before Bela Lugosi’s Dead or Shadow Play were played in London clubs, people were dressing to match the darkness within. One needs only picture a Lord Byron or Edgar Allen Poe.
In the music camp there was no modern gothic scene before Joy Division or Siouxsie and the Banshees. Sure you had the Romantic poets and the Universal Pictures monsters, but these were precursors, not the real McCoy. Only after the pronounced bass line, tribal beats, and flanged guitar did you get the archetypal goth. Fashion is mere affectation. At best it is a physical expression of the darkness inherent in the music. It depends on the music, much as color depends on form. It does not precede, it follows.
Most goths sit between these two extremes, placing more or less importance on fashion or music as to their own tastes. The broad majority of goths blend the two, balancing the gothic look with the gothic sound as to render them equal. So, while not of utmost importance, some gothic fashion sense is sufficient if you want to be goth. But is it necessary?
One can attempt to equate gothic with geek fashion. There are degrees of goths as there are degrees of geeks, or rather, categories. Your archetypal comic book geek is likely to own one or two Batman or Wolverine tee shirts. The shirt of a fantasy nerd may read “Frodo Lives” or “Slitherin.” A gamer may wear a shirt with the extra life mushroom from Super Mario Bros. Shirts can be an expression of the geek’s interests. They may also reflect the wearer’s sense of humor. So, too, with the goth. A goth’s flare for black clothing stems from an expression of personal tastes. Perhaps melancholic, somewhat introspective, maybe artistic, these are reasons to wear black. Black has been the color of choice for poets, beatniks, and priests. Why not goths, too?
There are more extreme levels of geek. The cosplayer, for example, will attend conventions dressed as a favorite character from anything from Star Wars to Final Fantasy. A live action role-player will dress as their character, whether an elven wizard or human ranger. This is just a more intense manifestation of the geek’s interest. This geek is no more or less devoted to the subject, yet does show considerable dedication. That is to say a standard geek’s love for Star Wars is not necessarily less than someone in a Darth Vader outfit. The costumed player just takes that love that step further.
In the same vain, so to speak, your standard goth has no less love for Nosferatu than someone dressed as a vampire. Dressing goth, then, is not a requirement. However, if you happen to be goth it is likely your style of dress will reflect that. Even if you happen to own just concert tee shirts of The Damned or The Cult, that is still taking that love one step further. To distinguish between the goth and geek, the goth is less emulation as expression of individuality. While a geek will take great pains to recreate a faithful reproduction of Mandalorian armor, a goth strives to create a personal image. This is not a costume or a uniform, it is a manifestation of self expression. Copycats, that is goths that try to appear like their idols, are generally held in low esteem. For instance, after the popularity of The Crow quite a number of goths emulated the Eric Draven look. Soon this became cliché, showing lack of imagination. Imagination is a treasured gothic asset.
Gothic fashion stands on a razor’s edge between established themes and unique style. How does one dress goth, express individually, and push the envelope while managing not to look foolish? Well, sometimes the attempt fails. Just as some geeks clearly should not dress as Thor or Slave Leia, some goths overstep their bounds. For certain body types a vinyl nurse’s outfit is an unwise decision. Others show no restraint, wearing far too many body piercings and accessories. It is much as the comedian, Eddie Izzard, said in Definite Article: Being cool is at the cutting edge of looking like a dick head. One eye patch? Cool, hip, and groovy. Two eye patches? Hello. All it takes is that one step too far. The best advice is to create an outfit or an ensemble, not a costume or uniform.
Gothic fashion feeds into the mainstream, then rebels against it, then returns in a sort of revival. Did the long, black trench appear before or after The Matrix? Well, both. The gothic look inspired wardrobe choices in the film, which then inspired new goths in the scene. There are plenty of subgroups each with distinguishing features and plenty of wiggle room to customize a look. Whether you enjoy steampunk, post-industrial rock, or ethereal music there is a look for you.
We have already established your club goth, whose corsets and short skirts are indicative of the lady goth’s night out apparel. Revealing wear often associated with sexual promiscuity is the primary cause as to why many in the mainstream think spooky chicks are freaks in bed. While there are segments of the goth scene that are into more adventurous sex, this is not patently true of every goth. Women dress that way to express dark beauty and to celebrate the scene. It is not to parade about in the hopes of winning men. It is wise to treat the club goth with the same respect you would use to approach any other young woman.
While not out for some special occasion you may find your gothic friends dialling it down a bit. In some cases the gothic aspect is barely perceptible. While some in the scene snub the jeans wearing goths, it must be said that even members of goth bands have been known to dress casual, sometime even while on stage. Nevertheless, you may still see an inordinate amount of black and the occasional ankh or crucifix dangling from a silver chain. Meanwhile the others dress in black every hour of every day, wearing gothic attire like a second skin.
Magazines like Gothic Beauty devote many pages to creating the best gothic look for you. Several websites and YouTube videos offer tips for getting the perfect smoky eye or pale complexion. Many shops cater to dark souls looking for gothic attire, whether jackets or boots. For a scene well past its thirtieth year, the gothic look has been so well established as to appear as a common trope in mainstream film and television. If only now the same media could better understand the culture rather than just the outward appearance.
Goths have never been the type to be understood easily. The fact that they are so often misunderstood is what attracts many to the culture in the first place. As we all know, mainstream society tends to malign that which it does not understand.