Before someone e-mails me furiously accusing me of not knowing what in this cold dark world I'm talking about, please keep in mind that this was written to give an idea to the mainstream reader of what the gothic aesthetic is. There are, of course, many branches and differences to that which is GAWTH, and all of them could not be included in this essay. Just a pretext before I receive sputtering insistences that what I said was goth, ain't, and what I say isn't, is. Basically, in short, relax before you swoon. - Polarbeast

There Is No Color But Black: Defining the Gothic Culture

      Alternate lifestyles always fascinate people, and sometimes frighten them. Throughout modern times there have been those whose appearances and behavior render them pariahs in mainstream society. Consider for instance a certain individual who might be found in any major city: a tall, whip-thin man of indeterminate age, striding purposefully down the boulevard or perhaps waiting outside a club. He may wear a billowing poet's shirt, or his arms may be sheathed in torn fishnets. His excruciatingly tight black pants are shiny leather or shinier PVC. His rings and earrings are silver, as is the long cross around his neck. His hair, dyed ebony, has been sprayed into an explosion of frenetic strands surrounding a pale, gaunt face that is likely to express any emotion but gaiety. This man probably refuses to categorize himself, but he is probably associated with one of the least-understood lifestyles of modern day: Goth. Splintered in the early 1980s from the punk rock movement, Goth is one of the longest-surviving youth subcultures since then, and is often associated with angst, darkness, and romanticism.

      But what, really, is Goth? Perusing a dictionary will reveal descriptions of medieval architecture or Teutonic barbarians who invaded the Roman empire, but few references to this gloomy subculture. The realm of the gothic is nebulous and difficult to classify, and its adherents obstinately resist such classification; it is therefore frequently misunderstood, erroneously connected with other lifestyles, and cast in a poor light by the media. Most simply, it began as a form of music; in 1979, a rock group named Bauhaus released an eerie single called "Bela Lugosi's Dead," which caught on strongly with the moody youth culture. The 1980s continued with bands such as Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Sisters of Mercy creating more pensive and crepuscular work. These artists never referred to themselves as gothic, and indeed most of the older gothic bands refrain from doing so, but the dark and occasionally supernatural structure of the music appealed to many who felt disassociated from society. The music often utilizes intelligent, elegant lyricism to convey a sense of loss or betrayal, and to contemplate the grim intricacies of existence. Not all bands explore the deeper side of human psyche, but a common element to the gothic attitude is an appreciation of the dark.

      There are components that seem integral to goth culture, yet there is no strict defining factor. The gothic aesthetic mostly centers around darker themes: death, sadness, loneliness, morbidity, vampirism, martyrdom, black humor, and salvation. The "feel" of Goth is inspired by the artistic movement of the 18th century known as Romanticism, which was focused around the struggle between good and evil, purity and sensuality, with a proclivity toward melancholy. Other influences include the Victorian era and the Middle Ages, where the contrast of decadence and holiness was highest. Many goth-minded people enjoy classic literature, poetry and art -- such as the work of Lord Byron or the paintings of the pre-Raphaelite artists -- as well as the pointed, vertical architectural style which shares its name with this subject.

      The appearance and attitude of Goth varies. As with any culture, it contains subdivisions, and can suffer from elitism. Each style often considers itself more authentic or superior to others, and it is not uncommon to see followers of one Goth clique consider those of another "poseurs." The fashions vary widely enough so that confusion is understandable, but there are similarities that can be observed. One typical element is the wearing of black clothing, although deep colors and white are also accepted; materials range from silk and velvet to torn fishnets and leather. Another is jewelry, usually silver, as the pale sternness of silver appears simpler and more formal than gold. Adornments representing the Judeo-Christian ethic or Egyptian mythology -- crosses and the looped cross known as the ankh -- are commonplace. Makeup is often worn to make one appear more pallid, and is rarely garish. Hairstyles might be of any color or cut, but solid black or an unusual hue such as scarlet are preferable to "normal" colors such as blonde. Footwear seems overwhelmingly to consist of boots: pointed toe, buckled, heavily laced, or austere. These fashion elements contribute to the style of Goth the wearer wishes to be, although many dislike being forced into a cliché. The types of Goth are myriad, and goths possess a self-deprecating humor in referring to themselves. The gothic theme is associated with sadness and morbidity, but one who overindulgences in an abyss of self-pity or moroseness is called "mopey." The opposite extreme is the happy gothic person, who dresses the part but is usually lighthearted, which makes more stolid and dignified goths wince; these are known as "Perkygoths." Between these two polar archetypes are stylistic differences between fans of the gothic genre. People who lean toward billowy shirts, vests and lace are "Romance" goths, while those wearing netted shirts and heavy boots and who embrace Punk and Industrial music are, as might be expected, "PunkGoths."

      Since Goth is not clearly understood, it finds itself associated with other lifestyles that occasionally overlap it but are more often unrelated. The gothic paradigm is rife with subjects which aren't goth but which goths like. Many goths enjoy other kinds of music with darker themes, such as Industrial or Heavy Metal, or indulge in alternate sexual lifestyles such as the BDSM (Bondage/Discipline and Sado-Masochism) scenes. Most goths are familiar with and appreciate the Christian religions, and Goth draws heavily from the Catholic aesthetic, but many embrace paganism or are atheist, which contributes to their sense of being ostracized from mainstream society. Many goths also are interested in the supernatural, especially vampires, whose undead mystery and predatory nature are appealing. However, going overboard with such themes, such as wearing fake fangs and a cape, will find oneself sneered at by "true" goths. There are music groups that seem to be gothic, such as Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, and indeed many goths enjoy their music, but will also adamantly deny that these groups are gothic. Those who profess to be fans of these groups and also claim to be gothic are also rejected by purists.

      Mainstream media rarely helps clear the confusion. As the misunderstood gothic culture appears to be an undesirable element in our "moral" Western society, it often finds itself condemned. This usually takes the form of a fantastic crime or news story involving youth: a murder spree, a gruesome animal sacrifice, or a bizarre Satanic ritual takes place, and the persons involved claim to be (or are accused of being) gothic. The Columbine murders, for instance, were perpetrated by young men who claimed to be part of the Trenchcoat Mafia, which was seen as "gothic" by the public. These rare instances are examples of people who are severely unbalanced, and while they appear to embrace parts of the gothic genre by wearing black, their psychoses and inability to function derive from other aspects of their lives. There are goths who are pagan, atheist, and even Satanist, but the gothic movement is not Satanic in itself. Many goths are fascinated by vampires and the supernatural, and a very few even engage in bloodplay as a sexual fetish, but they realize it for the fantasy it is, and do not engage in the frippery of pretending to be a vampire or trying to drink blood as sustenance. They enjoy dark music and fantastical art and poetry, but they can also return to work the following day and function like any other individual.

      Often lugubrious and melodramatic, occasionally pretentious and elitist, Goth can be defined by what it is not as well as by what it is. Goths are often outcast or misinterpreted by the mainstream for their appreciation of the dark and the morbid, but humanity itself has been fascinated by death, suffering and the dichotomy of light and dark for millennia. The facets of Goth appear to reflect society back at itself.

David Elsensohn, March 2003

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