Goth Subculture and Fashion Style in Subcultural Theories

Leah Bush

Leah Bush

Goth subculture is a relatively underexplored topic in academia despite its continuing longevity and distinct sartorial style characterised by themes of the macabre, images associated with femininity, and an overwhelming emphasis on the colour black.

Rising out of the ashes of the punk rebellion of late 1970s Britain, Goth quickly spread and remains concentrated in Britain, the United States, and Germany. Interdisciplinary scholarship on Goth began nearly twenty years after the subculture’s inception through ethnographic analyses of the British Goth subculture, which focused on the examination of Goth as a community defined by shared visual style and subcultural tastes.

Goth’s devotion to style and ownership of subculturally approved consumer products clearly define it as a subculture of consumption, and correspondingly, a major theme in Goth subcultural scholarship is subcultural consumptive practices.

Relationships between style, gender, and identity form the other major theme in subcultural scholarship. As the majority of Goth scholars are academics who are also subcultural members, little tension is apparent other than discussion over the role of the vampire in relation to Goth style.

Emerging scholarship focuses on the relationship between the Goth subculture and ageing, emphasising that Goth remains a community of ageing participants who retain a collective style and identity. The lack of scholarship on the American Goth subculture offers a variety of unexplored topics for researchers of consumer culture, advertising, music, and fashion.

Inspired by early 1980’s musical performers such as Siouxsie Sioux and Bauhaus, Goth style developed at a London nightclub called the Batcave and was characterised from the beginning by “black back-combed hair and distinctively styled heavy dark make-up, accentuating the eyes, cheekbones, and lips.”

Another striking feature of Goth is male adoption of traditionally feminine styles, such as elaborately modelled, long, black dyed hair, delicate fabrics, skinny-fit clothes, skirts, and lots of black jewellery with crosses, magical symbols, skulls, and bats.

Goths also find stylistic inspiration in Victorian-era dress, which often includes corsets, lace-up dresses, and pirate shirts. Since the late 1990s, Goth has been influenced by styles of the dance club and fetish scenes, creating sub-styles such as “cyber-Goth” and “fetish-Goth.”

Goth is often described by scholars as an educated, middle-class subculture marked by exceptional peacefulness and a high degree of tolerance of different lifestyles5, and is considered to have little in common with early subcultural theories of the Chicago School which conceptualised youth deviance in a situational context.

These theories provided the framework for the theories of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) and the book ‘Resistance through Rituals’ (1976), which interpreted post-war British youth cultures as symbolic of resistance to the dominant hegemony of British society.

In his seminal work ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’, Dick Hebdige of the CCCS presents the punk movement as a case study of “stylistic subcultures” which signify their difference through stylistic innovation.

The British class-based theories of Hebdige and the CCCS have provided fertile ground for criticism by subcultural scholars, including sociologist Paul Hodkinson, who argues for its inapplicability to Goth on the grounds of the subculture’s nonviolent nature.

More recent frameworks such as David Muggleton’s “post-modern” subcultures and Andy Bennett’s “neo-tribes” present subcultures as more fluid groupings of young people with related interests as opposed to a shared subcultural identity.

As a distinct group devoted to a shared style and set of consumption activities, Goth neatly fits into John W. Schouten and James McAlexander’s definition of subcultures of consumption.

Sarah Thornton directly relates ownership of products to subcultural stratification in her theory of “subcultural capital,” which is commonly used by scholars of Goth to describe subcultural power relations. In a study of club cultures in the mid-1990s, Thornton expands upon Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital” to determine that subcultural capital, which includes knowledge and purchase of consumer goods, confers status upon its owner in the eyes of the relevant beholder.

The beginning of Goth subcultural scholarship coincided with Goth’s resurgence in popularity in Britain in the late 1990s. ‘Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture’, by Paul Hodkinson, senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Surrey, is the first ethnographic study of Goth subculture and is highly suggested as the starting point for academic research on Goth. His research as a critical insider in the British Goth scene has become primary literature on Goth.

Hodkinson’s sociological analysis of Goth subculture centres around his reworking of subcultural theories to emphasize Goth as an independent grouping that does not require opposition to a capitalistic dominant culture.

In contrast to “post-modern” and “neo-tribal” theories emphasizing fragmentation, Hodkinson argues that the features of Goth imply a level of cultural substance which distinguish Goth as a subculture from more temporal groupings of youth.

These indicators of substance are distinctiveness in ideals and tastes, subcultural identity, subcultural commitment, and a relatively high level of autonomy of media and commerce. Hodkinson’s analysis of Goth style, identity, and subcultural consumption practices are formed around this basis of Goth as a community. Although his discussion of the Goth subculture is comprehensive, a limitation of his sociological analysis is that he examines Goth only on the macro level and does not attempt to elucidate the meaning of Goth for individual participants.

‘Goths: A Guide to an American Subculture’ is one volume in Micah Issitt’s non-scholarly series on American subcultures. Although it may seem to be a promising overview of Goth, Issitt’s scholarship is dubious. Factual errors abound regarding Goth music, and very little analysis of the subculture is present.

A researcher who possesses more than cursory knowledge of Goth should pass over Goths and refer directly to the primary documents listed in the annotated bibliography.

‘Goth: Undead Subculture’, a collection of twenty-three essays edited by Lauren M.E. Goodlad, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Michael Bibby, professor of English at Shippensburg University, is far more effective than Issitt’s Goths in examining multiple facets of the subculture in an accessible manner.

Goodlad and Bibby’s introduction, written for a primarily academic audience, is also an excellent resource for the more advanced researcher on Goth. Goodlad and Bibby build upon Hodkinson when arguing that the longevity of Goth stems from its complex relationship to the idea of subculture.

The major dichotomy of Goth is that as a spectacular subculture, Goth signifies difference through stylistic innovation and the aestheticisation of everyday life and is also consumer and commodity-oriented by nature.

The authors also touch upon various themes in Goth scholarship: the history of Goth; Goth style; literature, music, and cinema commonly associated with Goth; subcultural membership and technology; erroneous mainstream perceptions of Goth as a violent subculture; and resistance to normative masculinity, all of which are discussed in a more comprehensive and accessible manner in the essays to follow.

Their emphasis on Goth as a polymorphous visual style unconsciously leads to a failure to describe the subculture in accessible terms to a new reader, who should refer to Goth or an essay in ‘Goth: Undead Subculture’ in a specific topic of interest.

Knowledge of and a strong interest in both the stylistic hallmarks of Goth as well as the basic tenets of subcultural theories are prerequisites for appreciating the depth of their introduction.

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