"Goth" Appropriation and the Demise of Subcultures

This article originally appeared in AdHoc Issue 8Purchase the issue here.

An image of a stunning girl with Cleopatra eye makeup, defined cheekbones, pale skin, and black crimped-and-teased hair shows up on your Tumblr feed. You can guess that it’s an image from the past, as the colors are faded and there is a bend in the corner, which leads you to conclude that the original is a physical picture scanned and uploaded to the Internet. It has over 500 likes and reposts with no information of its origins—no year, no names given as credit or to the model. Discovering even who posted the picture on Tumblr is difficult to find after a certain number of reposts; the image becomes further removed from its source. The image itself decays, too, each successive copy becoming a more distorted version of the original photograph. Soon its lines are blurred and faded, merely a ghost imprint of the original. This is the way I think of the 1980s goth subculture. The 1980s goths, even though they molded and set the foundation for subsequent goths, have unwittingly become fodder for the Tumblr generation.


Photo by Sean Chapman, early 1980s.

If the aim of a given subculture is to present an alternative to mainstream culture, how can it survive if its aesthetics are cannibalized and displayed on every fashion website and photo gallery? Subcultures once thrived on the pursuit of shock value and on the ideology of “confrontational dressing,” as first described in the 1970s by the queen of punk, Vivienne Westwood. To confront or offend the public through visuals alone—which was often done by dress, accessories, the usage of symbols—distinguished a member of the subculture from the rest of the world. But over-exposure leads desensitization, and “shock value” loses its luster.

Of course, it’s possible to argue that the Internet has helped make subculture more ubiquitous in the Western World, introducing people to a community of like-minded individuals and helping them connect with those who have similar interests. Still, since the internet started making information and imagery more readily accessible in the mid-1990s, it’s also led individual subcultures to blur together somewhat. There has been shift in the past twenty years from group commitment to the focus of the individual—mainly because the computer is an individualistic device, confined within one’s own private space. Danny Fury, a UK-based original goth told me, “The kids these days, it’s not the same. They all just stay home with their [computers] nowadays. No scene, no movements… they don’t have much interest apart from wanna-be famous. But for what? They don’t seem to know or care… just be famous.”

The change from group to individual, I argue, is why the ideology of subculture is dead. During the latter part of the 20th century, there was no doubt as to how to differentiate between a goth or punk from the so-called “normals.” Dedication to an individual subculture was shown by its members through dress; in turn, the visual elements of the subculture—be it hairstyle, makeup, clothes, or accessories—became integral parts of the movement’s formation.  Wearing black (which was the case most, but not all, of the time) in Western culture symbolized mourning—goths were grieving over the dissatisfaction of everyday life.  They were not afraid of death and emblazoned the iconography of death in their fashions and often assembled in cemeteries.  Wearing black symbolized much than mourning attire: it represented the desire to stand out amongst the mainstream, to challenge societal norms which can be found in the makeup clad, dress wearing feminine men and uber feminine women of the subculture.  The other vital element was the music. Punk was simplistic, loud, and straight to the point; goth was atmospheric, moody and somber. These adjectives used to describe the music matched the visual aesthetics of the subculture as well. 

I have interviewed a large number of old-school “traditional” goths from around the world since I have begun this area of study for my book Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace. And it was echoed from scenes as far as Russia and Argentina that there are two things that a subculture depends on for survival: commitment and music. Subcultural identification, at its strongest, can be an all-consuming, twenty-four hours a day job. Sean Chapman, an early iteration goth, active from 1980, describes the importance of commitment: as a teenager he never left his squat without full makeup on. It was as natural as brushing his teeth. “I would spend anything up to two and a half hours putting on my makeup and doing my hair,” he told me. “I always made sure that I never looked the same twice.” Goth’s poster boy Robert Smith of The Cure echoes this sentiment in his 1984 song “Dressing Up,” summing up more than the goth subculture’s ethos, but every subculture’s ethos: I’m dressing up to dance all week/ I’m dressing up to sleep.

* * *

In the 1970s, punk became synonymous with a do-it-yourself philosophy; the goth look embraced that ethos, combined it with dimensions of Ziggy Stardust’s alien-like presence, and cloaked it in darkness. Even though the term “goth” did not exist in the early 1980s, the basic visual outline of goth was born, for both sexes: black clothes, white face, and dark makeup. According to those I spoke to, members derived social stature from their commitment to the subculture; goths with the most knowledge of the movement’s foundations and had the most unique visual looks were revered in the group. Without the World Wide Web, inspirational sources for goth fashion came from bands like Siouxsie & The Banshees and Bauhaus. The DIY aspect was important to goth fashion, as  it was more difficult to purchase ready-made goth items at the time, especially outside of large cities. Therefore, a goth had to rip, dye, sew, and stud clothing in order to capture the basic goth look a lá Siouxsie or Robert Smith,  just as the punks had done with the Sex Pistols.

Fast forward to today, and this used and abused “look”—refurbished band t-shirts, distressed, ripped and patched cutoffs—is back in vogue, inspiration for manifold high end and fast fashion retailers. The look is simulated to be real but is, in fact, a fantasy—one that has replaced the original dream of crafting a completely original outfit from scraps, thrift store throwaways, or even old curtains. In 2013, Urban Outfitters released a line of “one of a kind” vintage men’s leather jackets with hand-painted logos of widely popular bands such as The Clash, Crass, GBH, and the Sex Pistols for $375. Sadly, these “DIY” jackets convey the opposite of the punk anarchist ethos in that one can view, click, pay, and receive them in a matter of days.  Sadly, it is impossible to retain sentimental value in the purchase of a vintage jacket obtained and then decorated by a popular retail chain.

Culture is now created by virtual reality—a set of clicks, downloads, and instantaneous rewards. It’s the detachment from real life engagement with others in this pseudo-modern world that destroys subcultures. Alan Kirby, in his article “The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond,” from Philosophy Now, coined the term pseudo-modernism.  The term is described as “ the tension between the sophistication of the technological means, and the vapidity or ignorance of the content conveyed by it.” Those of us who were born after 1980 are most likely victims of such a historical development, all-engulfed in computers and a fantastical world that allows us to be despondent to any sort of commitment—subcultural or otherwise. A quick scroll through Tumblr, especially when searching the term “goth,” reveals an endless succession of empty subcultural symbols and signs.  Dyed hair, black lipstick, Doc Martens, and mohawks are the carcass of the goth subculture—void of commitment and, most of all, the music.

* * *

The Internet’s flow of data and ease of accessibility to information brought about a change to the subcultural framework of pre-internet alternative youth culture.  Subgroups of goth did not exist until the 1990s when members’ interests strayed to other fashions and music outside of the original framework of the subculture in conjunction to the new territories that the Internet provided.  The creation of these subgroups appropriate basic elements of goth, especially the use of black.  One such example is the emergence of the Internet sensation “health goth,” a fashion trend that does not actually correspond to the subculture’s foundations of moody atmospheric sounds and feminine looks (albeit knowingly). Health goth’s aesthetic emphasis is on black sportswear. It caused a small blip in the mainstream and managed to receive write-ups in both The New York Times and Marie Claire. Originally a Facebook page run by Chris Cantino, Mike Grabarek, and Jeremy Scott from Portland, health goth bloomed into something bigger than itself due to its media portrayal, which often missed the point, suggesting the idea that wearing black is goth. The health goth Facebook page began as a collection of images the three friends found aesthetically pleasing, pictures of sportswear, bionic and robotic super creatures and sports ads. Health goth, bore little parallel to goth’s subcultural lineage right from the start. Where goth’s dark androgynous creatures helped redefine beauty—often embracing alternative body shapes, and dressing in considerably less comfortable clothes, such as corsets and pointy shoes—the black-clad gym go-ers of health goth aimed to replicate mainstream beauty standards of a svelte, fit body. Goth welcomed the other, not the ideal.

The originators of health goth discussed the fashion phenomenon with i-D Magazine late last year, stating, “We reject the idea that [health goth] is a lifestyle choice, it’s an aesthetic and you’re welcome to pick and choose whatever bits inspire you.” The idea of pseudo-modernism is reflected in this statement, connoting a lack of commitment to a movement, of having no roots to even grasp onto. Likewise, health goth detaches itself from any subcultural substance when its originators comment, “We haven’t paired it with specific sounds, because we’ve seen other aesthetics become less relevant when the music stopped progressing.” As Chapman put it to me, to have longevity, a subculture needs a foundation in sound. “I think music always gives you an ‘attitude’ that you can shape and translate into a ‘look,’ he says. “I could never separate the music and fashions, for me they always go hand in hand.”

Our ephemeral Internet fantasy world has swept society into a Pavlovian nightmare. We see it, we get it—and that culture of instant gratification can hamper our creativity. Chapman sees himself lucky as having come of age in the 1980s: “Today, young people are served youth culture on a plate,” he says. “[Us goths] also had to seek things out for ourselves, and there were very few ways of sharing information, music, and other influences. I think that can only have made us a more creative generation. You couldn’t buy what we wanted; we had to invent it [ourselves].”

Our inherent desire to create has not died out but is much more difficult. The individualism of the Internet has brought about more independent record and fashion labels, while urging artists to be more entrepreneurial in order to sell their craft. A challenge of all artists in the Internet age is to stand out even it seems every aesthetic and idea has been produced. I do believe that there are varying levels of devotion beyond the Tumblr generation that will connect individuals who have a desire to grasp every ancestral nugget of the past in order to continue to forge new underground movements. But, perhaps, the movement must begin internally rather than through aesthetic decisions just as the pioneering goths did before us—fueled by music and a desire to challenge what is  in this pseudo-modernist society. Until then, just like the Xerox machine, we are blurring the DNA of our subcultural histories, copies of copies piling up.

Tagged: Features, Zine, Issue 8, Goth
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