On Goth and Consumerism
The story of a subculture’s tragic transformation
Both images’ source: © Underground, 2021
Goth—in the context of this article—is a music-based subculture that was developed in the 1980s, mostly in the United Kingdom but in other parts of Europe and the Americas as well. The subculture was composed mainly of gothic rock, an underground music genre that evolved from post-punk, which in turn evolved from punk rock. Influences from glam rock, Gothic literature, horror movies, vampire fiction, and various mythologies also played their part in the birthing of goth. These inspirations made themselves known in the aesthetic itself and in the lyrics of the music at its core. The 80s and 90s are commonly considered the goth golden age, but since then, the subculture has gone through radical changes thanks to the power of mass consumerism.
The aesthetic and fashion of goth subculture first developed as a way for committed goths to stand out from the crowd and identify each other. It was an underground community of like-minded people who shared musical tastes: many of them came from the 70s punk scene but had grown tired of its more violent and insurrectionary tendencies. Still, the two subcultures had a great deal of overlap. Many venues would host both punk rock and gothic rock bands, and some eventually became fundamental to the development of goth. A great example would be the F Club in Leeds, which first opened in 1977 as a punk rock club and later transitioned to a goth one. It connected potential band members to each other and hosted several bands that would later become influential in a myriad of goth subgenres, such as Joy Division for post-punk, the Sisters of Mercy for gothic rock, and Soft Cell for new wave. In the California scene, this overlap caused the birth of a new subgenre called deathrock, a form of gothic rock that had stronger connections to punk in both style and politics.
Goth’s aesthetic development was heavily influenced by this overlap as early goth fashion adopted many significant elements from punk. With time, the two scenes grew apart and goth started curating a more unique aesthetic inspired by Gothic literature, Victorian fashion, and glam rock.
Despite finding its own distinct style, early goth still upheld the anti-establishment values of its parent subculture. It displayed distinct D.I.Y and second-hand elements that were discretely displayed in the musical and social aspects of the scene, but obvious in its early aesthetical features. Most of the traditional goth ‘look’ was built around items of clothing that could easily be found second hand (or in your grandma’s closet) such as: old blouses, blazers, long skirts and dresses, lace, work boots, and much more.
When asked about their clothes in an interview at the Xclusiv nightclub in Yorkshire, a group of traditional goths described finding them at second hand shops and altering them, or even assembling them from foraged bits and pieces. A young goth man explained: “[I] buy dresses [from second hand shops] and cut ‘em up and just do anything with ‘em.” This serves as an example of how femininity was not only an accepted characteristic of men’s goth fashion but an encouraged approach, as it reflected a further middle finger to the establishment. All three interviewed youths also sported deathhawks, a hairstyle that evolved alongside the goth scene’s slow separation from punk.
In addition, many fundamentals of the aesthetic were built on the social changes that hippies and glam rock artists had explored through alternative sexuality and gender expression. Punks were already starting to experiment with this fluidity by including kink elements in their clothing, such as collars and leather harnesses, while goths pursued the trend and incorporated extra elements such as lingerie, heels, and platform boots. Glam rock was especially influential by bringing Punk’s low effort smudged eyeliner look to new levels with the addition of graphic liner, white foundation, and lipstick.
By the late 80s, the goth subculture was well established and thriving. As with every alternative aesthetic that gained too much popularity, the sharp teeth of capitalism were ready to tear it apart. The fast fashion industry proceeds by identifying growing trends before cheaply mass-producing articles of clothing and accessories associated with these trends’ aesthetics. Such items would’ve usually been DIYed or acquired from less reachable sources like sex shops. Some might argue this made the subculture more accessible, but from the perspective of traditional goths, it simply denigrated and deradicalized the aesthetic. What did it mean to be goth if the cost became spending two hundred dollars at a fast fashion store instead of the active involvement in the local scene and the hours of needlework early goths would put in? It wasn’t a welcomed change in the subculture, and people who bought into these aesthetics started being verbally attacked by older goths. They were called “posers”, “spooky kids”, and “mall goths'', the last one clearly showing the implications behind these insults. This wasn’t very effective though, as most of these terms were either reclaimed or overused to the point of losing all meaning.
Ultimately, goth lost its battle against capitalism, and the subculture’s face has been forever changed. Nowadays, despite the name transcending time, goth is mostly perceived as a fashion style detached from any history, fetishized, and negatively stereotyped in the media. The goths of the 80s and 90s have now split into disjoint subgroups or adjacent subcultures, and although some active goth musicians remain, the local scene is still in desperate need of a necromancer.
Goodlad, L., & Bibby, M. (2007). Goth: Undead Subculture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Swallow, A., & Swallow, P. (Producers). Anonymous Goth Youth, . (Interviewees). (1984). THE HEIGHT OF GOTH: 1984 [Online video]. Batley, West Yorkshire, UK: Xclusiv Nightclub. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/ix1ouhSPOxI