Outlining Goth Fashion? The Designers of Subculture Shopping

Paul Hodkinson
Paul Hodkinson

In a previous article, we established that across a range of theoretical perspectives, there is a tendency for commerce and media to be associated with cultural superficiality or fluidity rather than substantive subcultural groupings as defined in this series.

In contrast, the remaining chapters will detail the ways in which commerce and media specifically constructed and facilitated the goth scene — a subculture whose overall levels of distinctiveness, shared identity and commitment are, I hope, beginning to become apparent.

Furthermore, we shall see that the involvement of media and commerce need not necessarily imply that autonomy — our final indicator of subculture — is entirely forfeit.

Rather than requiring an escape from “the media” or “the market”, as Gary Clarke would have it (1981: 92), relative autonomy suggests that the forms of consumption and communication which facilitate and construct the grouping in question are, to a certain degree, distinct or separate from those connected with outside cultural amalgamations.

Therefore, we shall see that, although patterns of buying, selling, and media-use were crucial to the goth scene, these were often focused around an internal network of relatively specialist subcultural institutions.

While the following chapters will focus on the extent to which the practices of subcultural participants were focused on commercial spaces, objects or media texts oriented toward the goth scene, the immediate emphasis here is on the organizations and individuals responsible for promoting, producing, distributing and selling them.

In order to begin to assess the extent to which the goth scene was generated internally, by its own participants, the chapter is divided into discussion of non-subcultural producers, located fairly clearly outside the goth scene and motivated essentially by commercial considerations, and of subcultural producers, motivated wholly or partially by their own involvement in and enthusiasm for the subculture.

What will become clear is that the fairly extensive involvement in the goth scene of external producers in the 1980s and early 1990s had declined by the late 1990s, and that many of their roles had been replaced by an internal network of entrepreneurs and volunteers.

As one might expect, non-subcultural producers varied considerably in wealth and influence, ranging from transnational major record companies to local independent shop owners.

In the main, non-subcultural producers provided media, consumables and events oriented to a mass or large niche market (Thornton 1995: 122–60), but it is worth noting that they also played their part in certain products which, due to their highly specialist audience orientation or limited availability, could be described as subcultural.

The key concern in this chapter, though, is not with the product or its audience, but the position and motivations of those who produced them vis-à-vis the goth scene. It is this which enables an assessment of the level of participation of goths in the generation of their subculture.

While precise origins are hard to trace, it is clear that non-subcultural record labels, distributors and retailers played a significant role in the goth scene right from its beginnings. In spite of the importance of independently organized events such as The Bat Cave in London and the live tours of other bands later to be termed “goth”, it was the simultaneous involvement of the recording industry which enabled the formation of the goth scene on a transnational scale.

The commercial success of the likes of Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure and, later, The Sisters of Mercy and The Mission owed itself, in no small part, to the production and distribution of their records by non-subcultural record labels and to the consequent availability of their music in commercial record stores.

In a number of cases, the exposure which resulted from initial independent deals soon attracted the interest of larger players. For example, the Sisters of Mercy’s label Merciful Release became attached to recording giant WEA from 1984, and The Mission, having released two singles on the relatively unknown independent label Chapter 22, signed a deal with Mercury Records in 1986.

Meanwhile, Siouxsie and the Banshees had been signed to Polydor ever since 1978. Such examples of larger-scale commercial interest in specialist sounds are consistent with Keith Negus’s observation that, rather than always seeking to “massify” or standardize, major record labels often seek to maximize niche appeal by cultivating links with generic subcultures: “Record companies initially position acts sartorially in relation to other artists and genres of music, and signify the adoption of an implicit lifestyle and set of values denoted by these visual codes.” (Negus 1992: 66)

The examples of The Mission and The Sisters of Mercy also resonate with Negus’s illustration of the tendency for larger labels to exploit already developed niche sounds pioneered by small-scale independents, who effectively are left playing the role of talent spotters (1992: 40).

The global marketing and media coverage — of goth bands and the subcultural lifestyle with which they were associated — by significant commercial interests, resulted in reasonable shelf space for goth bands in independent and chain record stores across and beyond Britain.

High street record stores were, like major labels, becoming more and more focused on supplementing and, indeed, increasing the money made from Top 40 sales to the perceived “casual buyer” by catering to a diversity of more specialist tastes (see Straw 1997).

That having been said, the commercial limits to this inclusiveness were emphasized when the interest, of both independent and major non-subcultural record companies and retailers, in goth bands, declined significantly toward the mid-1990s.

While they remained involved in the release of new or repackaged material by initially established goth bands, and in the occasional release of indie or metal music which took on limited elements of goth style, the non-subcultural record industry soon lost interest in seeking or supporting new goth bands. As a result, the availability of recorded music from such bands became almost entirely reliant upon highly specialist record labels and retailers run by enthusiasts for the subculture.

The close relationship between the recording industry and the music media is well documented (see Frith 1983; Negus 1992). In the case of the goth scene, the involvement of record companies intensified and was intensified by the amount of non-subcultural media coverage received by goth bands throughout the 1980s.

The majority of 1980s goth bands were featured on BBC Radio One’s John Peel’s Sessions, on niche music television shows such as The Old Grey Whistle Test and The Tube, and in Britain’s music press. While relatively specialist subcultural magazines such as Zig Zag played an important part, the labelling practices of journalists working for more broadly oriented publications such as New Musical Express, Melody Maker and Sounds were probably most instrumental in the crystallization of a disorganized handful of sporadic stylistic similarities into an identifiable, coherent cultural movement.

That the music press should have played such an important part here re-emphasizes the tendency of such publications to generate interest and sales by focusing not only on music itself but also on its social and cultural significance (Frith 1983: 172). More specifically, it illustrates Sarah Thornton’s point that the music press specifically seek to report on, and hence construct, potential new genres or subcultures.

As well as serving to add extra interest to the reporting of music, such a move can help generate and maintain loyal committed readerships (Thornton 1995: 153). Certainly, the inclusion of regular coverage of post-punk and, later, goth bands and events during the 1980s had successfully prompted many of the older goths I came across to read NME or Melody Maker almost every week during the 1980s.

In the same way that major labels fed on the success stories pioneered by independents, larger-scale “mass” media followed the lead of the music press and became increasingly involved in the dissemination of goth images and music in the latter half of the 1980s. Most notably, in addition to their appearances on late-night radio or television, the best-known goth bands enjoyed occasional appearances on popular music television such as the BBC’s Top of the Pops, and ITV’s The Chart Show.

Toward the end of the 1980s, there appeared two books by British music journalist Mick Mercer, entitled ‘Gothic Rock Black Book’ (Mercer 1988) and ‘Gothic Rock’ (Mercer 1991). The subcultural popularity of these texts undoubtedly owed itself in large part to an author with considerable personal connections to the goth scene, but non-subcultural publishers and high street retailers accounted for much of their distribution to that audience.

As with the involvement of the recording industry, the goth scene, like many other styles, was only suitably novel to be worthy of mass-media coverage for a short time. Meanwhile, the music press, who were losing readers to new style bibles such as The Face, and glossy rock-music magazines aimed at a more mature audience (Shuker 1994: 87), courted and hence constructed various new movements, including an indie scene associated with Manchester (Thornton 1995: 153).

The focus of increasingly sparse articles on goth became more and more tongue-in-cheek. One article appeased the majority of its indie readership by stating that: “You do not want to be one, you do not want to listen to Nick Cave and the Neff and Skeletal Family, you do not want to wear patchouli oil, you do not want to belong to an adolescent tribe who do nothing but hang around […] looking dour, waiting for the end of the world […]” (Collins 1991: 22–3)

However, it is worth noting that the publication still played its role in the continual construction of the goth scene by helpfully going on to outline many of the subculture’s most important elements for those who might, in fact, want to “be one”.

During the late 1990s both mass and niche, media had become far less significant as producers of the goth scene. Nevertheless, there were occasional reviews or previews of particularly large or notable gigs or festivals.

The Whitby Gothic Weekend sometimes attracted journalists seeking to amuse readers of Sunday newspapers and, on one occasion, a teenage girl’s magazine.

The music press also occasionally reviewed new or repackaged old material by 1980s goth bands and sometimes played up the stylistic references to goth of certain newer indie and metal bands — notably Garbage, Placebo, Republica, Marilyn Manson and Type O Negative.

In addition, at a number of points during my research period, non-subcultural media proclaimed the return of, either the popularity of the goth scene itself or its influences on current designer fashion.

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