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What Taylor Swift & Justin Bieber Don't Get About "Goth"

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images.
Long a staple fashion subculture, Goth has been dragged into the bright glare of the mainstream with long-time signature items, like dark lips, skull embellishments, and coal-black palettes, recently popping up on surprisingly sunny people — such as Taylor Swift, whose latest style chapter has been called goth by more than one publication. Once a true underground movement — perhaps six-feet underground, even — the modern Goth aesthetic has been moving past its niche origins and entering the mainstream, and getting misinterpreted and de-fanged along the way. Goth is a lot more than its superficial reputation of all black, all the time; it has serious roots in literature, history, and pop culture that are just now receiving scholarly attention in museum exhibitions, books, and, of course, in some really unexpected corners of the fashion world.

To understand today’s Goth movement — especially in the fashion sense — you have to go way back its origins as a cultural movement during the 19th century. Goth takes its name from German (or Teutonic) tribes, which came to be associated with particular forms in Northern European Medieval art. In the current exhibit at Connecticut's Wadsworth Atheneum is Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion and its Legacy, and curator Lynne Z. Bassett uses clothing, jewellery, decorative arts, and literature to examine how a response to the rise of industrialisation led to a cultural movement that elevated death, particularly the trappings of mourning, as something to be cultivated and revered. The Romantic movement and its fascination with both the natural and the supernatural, often in the form of monsters, took much of its inspiration from the Medieval age, which was viewed as a simpler, more genteel era before the “modern” pressures of the Industrial age.

“What I found was that these ideas of Romanticism were absolutely pervasive in the culture. People were surrounded by these ideas and they understood what these things represented. They weren't just necessarily following the fashion because of the fashion. When they dressed in a dress that was really tight in the bodice and sleeves and full in the skirt they were making themselves look like a Gothic arch. I was surprised at how cognisant people were of the styles and what they meant.” In the same way that Goths today use black lipstick and Gothic font, 18th century goths were expressing their world-weariness through severe lines and pseudo-religious accessories.

The Goth that most people are most familiar with originated as a part of the post-punk movement from England in the late-'70s. Where punk was political, Goth was miserable — the sound itself morphing from angry anarchy to one of melancholy introspection. The scene was rife with bands that borrowed heavily from earlier elements of Romanticism, the occult, and literature; from Siouxsie Sioux’s Egyptian-inspired eye makeup to Adam Ant’s Byronic “Dandy Highwayman” to Bauhaus’ discordant homage to famous vampires. According to Goth DJ and scholar Andi Harriman, some of the most influential creators of the look aren’t even the most obvious. She, in fact, counts the more colourful and fashion-forward David Bowie with even facilitating death rock’s rise to begin with, explaining that it was “his idea that you could be a weirdo or a freak in broad daylight — and it be perfectly acceptable. Without Bowie, Goth wouldn't exist.”

As she details in her book on the imagery of 1980s music scene, Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace, the classic black garb and pale complexion came to be most associated with the look, but there’s more to it than that. In her opinion, “Black is not the most important element of being a Goth — it's a state of mind. It's about being dark and different, creative and without limits.” She also indicates that over time, the Goth fashion movement has splintered and evolved into different variations, such as the doll-like Japanese Goth Lolita, the brutalist Industrial, and the fantasy-based Steampunk — some of which she doesn’t view as rising to the level of “Goth.” She says, “I don't think a proper Goth would wear Cybergoth elements. It's a sub-genre of the subculture that doesn't relate so much in terms of music or dress. Most Goths don't wear a lot of neon, face masks, or those over-the-knee stripy socks, basically anything Mall Goths wear.” Harriman, like a lot of Goth purists, prefers her style darker than midnight, retro, and free from plastic. Like any subculture, the rules that define what makes up the “right” look are based on invisible lines of tradition, tribal affiliation, and self-proclaimed expertise.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/Getty Images.
The concept of “Mall Goth” itself shows just how mainstream and widely available the look has become, with wardrobe elements from top hats to platform boots available through mass-market brands from Hot Topic to Forever 21. Additionally, skulls, studs, and fishnet have filtered up to the runways for such high-end houses as Alexander Wang, Rodarte, and Marc Jacobs. Even those with no morbid streak nor association with death rock are categorised as “Goth” without even trying too hard (or at all). For example, Taylor Swift’s darker lipstick choices and Justin Bieber’s tour merchandise that's more in line with death metal and '80s Goth aesthetics than with Diplo-produced tracks have wrongly been hit with the label. A lipstick and a font do not a Goth make. According to Barney’s creative ambassador and writer Simon Doonan, who was himself a big fan of the Goth-adjacent “New Romantic” look in his 20s, it’s a look that’s at once true to its roots and ever-changing. He mentions that he’s even seen elements of all-black palettes and Robert Smith-inspired drop-crotch pants sneaking into the wardrobes of hip hop-leaning fashion brands like Hood by Air and Off White. Observing that “There's a new look, which is very goth. I call it the 'arty ninja' look. It has a dotted line to Comme des Garcons and designers like Public School.”

So where does Goth fashion go next? Perhaps the strangest place it’s turned up in the last few years is outside of clove cigarette smoke-filled clubs and into the gym. So-called Health Goth (think: all the men and women wearing head-to-toe black athleisure with black lipstick, strong brows, and baby bangs — perpetuated by fashion brands like HBA and Rick Owens), started off as somewhat of a joke according to fan and fashion writer, Meirav Devash, who tackled the trend for The New York Times, but soon grew into a genuine design category for athleisure. Devash adds that it’s a more practical look than the Victorian-inspired clubwear, while at the same time dovetailing with the scene’s vampire fetish, “because Goths don't have to die young like punks, we can live forever.” Nothing like regular cardio sessions to ensure that happens.