What is Goth?

Goth is a music-based subculture that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s in United Kingdom and is characterized by its distinctive fashion, music, and philosophy that embraces the love for the darkness and the macabre. 

Initially rooted in the punk movement, Goth evolved into its own subculture with a unique aesthetic and a range of philosophical and musical influences. Goths often wear black clothing, makeup, and hairstyles and listen to music genres such as Gothic rock, darkwave, and industrial. They have a unique perspective on life and death and often embrace nihilism, existentialism, and paganism.

Despite being misunderstood and often stereotyped, Goth culture remains a vibrant and diverse community, with a passionate following around the world. In this article, we will explore what Goth is, its history and evolution, as well as the various elements that make it such a compelling and enduring subculture.

A brief history of Goth to answer some popular questions surrounding this thematic and to help you understand more precisely how it all started.

Goth Subculture History

The Roots

During the late 1960s, The Velvet Underground, led by Lou Reed, infused their music with a darker edge, setting them apart from the hippie movement. After Reed embarked on a solo career in 1972, the glam rock movement gained popularity in England, with Marc Bolan and David Bowie at the forefront, sporting teased hair and flamboyant makeup that would later inspire the punk look of the late 1970s. Alongside this glam trend, German-born singer Nico was already being labeled “gothic” by the press as early as 1971, albeit in a very different approach.

However, according to critic Simon Reynolds, Alice Cooper is the “true godfather” of gothic rock due to his use of theatricality and black humor in the early 1970s.

The creation

While it was previously associated with other subcultures, such as the Post-Punk movement, it’s in August of 1979 that the term “Goth” was for the first time applied to a distinct subculture. Thanks to the release of Bauhaus’ nine-and-a-half-minute masterpiece, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, this song ignited a youth culture phenomenon by blending Joy Division’s bleakness with Susie’s aggressive sensuality.

Suzi Sue is likely the earliest embodiment of the Gothic subculture that we recognize today, going beyond the wealth of classic literature. Even before the Banshees, she was pushing the boundaries of Punk fashion by incorporating more fishnets, heavier eye makeup, and increasingly voluminous hair.

Where did the term Goth originate?

The term “Goth” was directly inspired by the music genre itself and was created by followers of Gothic rock, which was a branch of the post-punk music movement.

The Movement

During the early 1980s, as the Goth movement flourished, post-punk bands such as The Cure began emphasizing their darker and moodier sides.

Newer bands such as The Sisters of Mercy, The Birthday Party, and Christian Death joined the Goth movement, helping to turn its vampiric vibes into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. As the scene grew, the sound diversified, encompassing dreamy moods such as those found in the music of the Cocteau Twins and the 4AD label. Death Rock emerged, fueling the 80’s Rockabilly revival, and Dark Wave emerged as Goths inevitably collided with the industrial death scene.

The Goth movement reached the height of its pop cultural influence in the 90s, with the popularity of Nine Inch Nails, The Crow, and The Sandman. These helped lead a new generation of disaffected teenagers down the path of sad poetry and Goth makeup.

The downfall

Sadly, Goth’s high popularity and success among youth ultimately led to its downfall as some individuals mixed it up with New Metal and Third-wave emo, leading to the birth of other types of Goths that turned the spirit and symbolism of this subculture mainstream and less interesting to the point of its brutal collapse.

Towards the end of the 1980s, the rise of techno made any movement or reference associated with rock seem outdated, pushing them from the forefront of the music scene to alternative scenes. Records became more challenging to come by, concerts were scarcer, and venues became smaller.

Subsequently, electronic music with a gothic spirit emerged and evolved. With the cultural and musical legacy of industrial rock, German bands like Diary of Dreams challenged the static innocence of the techno movement. From the latter half of the 2000s, distorted electro or gothic electro gained popularity among the new generation, also known as “Cyber” within the gothic movement, with a considerable number of parties and musical groups dedicated to this genre. Bands like EXT!ZE, X-RX, Noisuf-X, Detroit Diesel, and Suicide Commando have become the flagbearers of the cyber-goth subculture.

Is Goth dead today?

Although this subculture may be less present than at the time, Goth and Gothic Fashion are still strongly alive. Some even say that decades after it was born, Goth is better than alive, it is Undead.

Indeed, even as the Goth culture reached its lowest point, the seeds for its resurrection have already being sown. Today, everything from rock and rap music to TV shows, movies, fashion, and Snapchat filters can be Goth. The true spirit of Goth lies in taking anything average and mainstream and turning it into something darker and more intriguing.

Music

Origins

In 1967, music critic John Stickney coined the term “gothic rock” after meeting with Jim Morrison in a dimly lit wine-cellar, which Stickney deemed “the perfect room to honor the Gothic rock of the Doors”. That same year, music historian Kurt Loder lauded the Velvet Underground’s song “All Tomorrow’s Parties” as a “mesmerizing gothic-rock masterpiece”.

In the late 1970s, “gothic” was used to describe the atmosphere of post-punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, and Joy Division. Critic Nick Kent drew parallels between these bands and the “gothic rock architects” the Doors and early Velvet Underground in a review of a Siouxsie and the Banshees concert in July 1978. Kent also noted a “dank neo-Gothic sound” in his review of Magazine’s Secondhand Daylight album in March 1979. Later that year, Joy Division’s manager Tony Wilson referred to the band as “gothic” in an interview for the BBC TV programme’s Something Else.

The term was later applied to newer bands like Bauhaus, who emerged after Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Bauhaus’s first single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”, released in 1979, is often credited as the starting point of the gothic rock genre.

In 1979, Joy Division was described by Sounds as “Gothic” and “theatrical”, while Melody Maker in February 1980 referred to them as “masters of this Gothic gloom”. Critic Jon Savage later claimed that Ian Curtis, their lead singer, wrote “the definitive Northern Gothic statement”. However, it was not until the early 1980s that gothic rock became a cohesive subgenre within post-punk, and followers of these bands started identifying as a distinct subculture.

The term “goth” may have been derived from a 1981 article in UK rock weekly Sounds titled “The ace of Punk Gothique” by Steve Keaton. In the article, Keaton discussed the audience of UK Decay and asked whether “Punk Gothique” could be the next big thing with Bauhaus on the horizon. The F Club in Leeds, originally a punk club that opened in 1977, played a pivotal role in the development of the goth subculture in the 1980s. The Batcave, which opened in London’s Soho in July 1982, became a prominent meeting point for the emerging scene and was briefly labeled “positive punk” by the NME in a special issue in early 1983. The term “Batcaver” was then used to describe old-school goths.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, deathrock emerged in California as a unique branch of American punk rock, featuring acts like Christian Death, Kommunity FK, and 45 Grave in the forefront. This subgenre developed independently of the British scene.

Gothic Genre

Bauhaus, early Adam and the Ants, the Cure, the Birthday Party, Southern Death Cult, Specimen, Sex Gang Children, UK Decay, Virgin Prunes, Killing Joke, and the Damned were among the bands that defined and embraced the gothic rock genre. According to The Face’s Paul Rambali, at the peak of this first generation of the gothic scene in 1983, there were “several strong Gothic characteristics” in the music of Joy Division. In 1984, Joy Division’s bassist Peter Hook named Play Dead as one of their heirs, stating that “If you listen to a band like Play Dead, who I really like, Joy Division played the same stuff that Play Dead are playing. They’re similar.”

In the mid-1980s, the gothic subculture saw a proliferation of bands and increasing popularity, with groups like the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission, Alien Sex Fiend, and Fields of the Nephilim gaining momentum. Labels such as Factory, 4AD, and Beggars Banquet released much of this music in Europe, while in the US, a vibrant import music market helped to grow the scene, particularly in cities like New York and Los Angeles, where clubs hosted “gothic/industrial” nights featuring bands like Black Tape for a Blue Girl and The Wake. As a result of this popularity, new goth-centric US labels like Wax Trax! Records and Projekt emerged.

In the 1990s, some 1980s goth bands continued to grow while new acts emerged, and new goth-focused record labels like Cleopatra Records emerged. However, according to The Guardian’s Dave Simpson, the goth movement began to decline as dance music became the dominant youth culture. This caused the goth movement to go underground and fracture into different subgenres, such as cyber goth, Shock rock, Industrial metal, Gothic metal, and Medieval folk metal. Spin labeled Marilyn Manson as a “goth-shock icon.”

Art & Cultural Influences

The Goth subculture of the 1980s drew inspiration from a variety of sources. Some of them were modern or contemporary, others were centuries-old or ancient. Michael Bibby and Lauren M. E. Goodlad liken the subculture to a bricolage. Among the music-subcultures that influenced it were Punk, New wave, and Glam. But it also drew inspiration from B-movies, Gothic literature, horror films, vampire cults and traditional mythology. Among the mythologies that proved influential in Goth were Celtic mythology, Christian mythology, Egyptian mythology, and various traditions of Paganism.

The figures that the movement counted among its historic canon of ancestors were equally diverse. They included the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844‒1900), Comte de Lautréamont (1846‒1870), Salvador Dalí (1904‒1989) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905‒1980). Writers that have had a significant influence on the movement also represent a diverse canon. They include Ann Radcliffe (1764‒1823), John William Polidori (1795‒1821), Edgar Allan Poe (1809‒1849), Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873), Bram Stoker (1847‒1912), Oscar Wilde (1854‒1900), H. P. Lovecraft (1890‒1937), Anne Rice (1941‒2021), William Gibson (1948‒), Ian McEwan (1948‒), Storm Constantine (1956‒2021), and Poppy Z. Brite (1967‒).

Litterature

Gothic literature is a type of fiction that blends romance and macabre elements to create an atmosphere of mystery, suspense, terror, horror, and the supernatural. Typical settings include ruined castles, dark graveyards, oppressive monasteries, and desolate mountain roads. Characters often include cruel parents, sinister priests, courageous heroes, helpless heroines, as well as supernatural creatures like demons, vampires, ghosts, and monsters. The plot typically revolves around characters who are ill-fated, tormented by internal conflicts, and victimized by malevolent figures. Additionally, gothic literature often focuses on characters who gradually descend into madness, according to David H. Richter.

Horace Walpole is one of the earliest writers who delved into this genre, with his 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. In the United States, Washington Irving’s “American Gothic” tale of the Headless Horseman, immortalized in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (published in 1820), marked the arrival of dark, romantic storytelling. Throughout the development of the goth subculture, classic Romantic, Gothic, and horror literature has played a significant role. Writers such as E. T. A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and H. P. Lovecraft have become iconic figures of the subculture, alongside dark fashion and makeup. In his preface to Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil), Baudelaire even penned lines that could be considered a gothic curse.

Visual Arts

The influence of the gothic subculture extends beyond musicians and also includes painters and photographers, whose work often features mystic, morbid, and romantic themes. The imagery in their works ranges from erotic art to romantic depictions of vampires or ghosts, and tends to favor dark colors and sentiments that reflect the themes of gothic fiction. In fact, in the late 19th century, painters such as John Everett Millais and John Ruskin pioneered a new style of gothic art.

Aesthetic

Among the aesthetic constants of the movement, one can observe the use of black. This is notably to symbolize the mark of the passage of time, a sort of eternal melancholy, the prevalence of dark romanticism, the medieval or Victorian era, or even the fantastic imaginary.

Common symbols are the raven (freedom, solitude) and the bat (dark romanticism). In the canons of gothic aesthetics, the vision of the body is often transfigured. There is a form of aesthetic idealization of the body, which makes the body a place of artistic research in its own right. What is emphasized in this vision of the body is often in rupture with societal norms. Everything is meticulously maintained: hairstyle, makeup, clothing, jewelry. The human being becomes a work of art in perpetual mutation.

Fashion

Gothic fashion is a set of elements related to the physical appearance associated with the gothic movement. The dress code is essential in the gothic movement, serving both as a sign of belonging to a counterculture and as a means of aesthetic protest, claiming refinement and elegance. The perpetual evolution of the gothic movement regularly feeds gothic fashion, going beyond the ephemeral fashion phenomenon to reveal a number of enduring characteristics. Despite this, far from being fixed, it leaves ample room for individual creativity.

Punk-Rock Influences

In a society where appearance is of prime importance as an implicit endorsement, displaying a non-conforming appearance is an effective means of protest that the punk movement extensively explored and whose many elements are still present in current gothic fashion, both in hairstyles and in accessories or materials.

Among the elements still present, one of the most notable is the hairstyle. Thus, the fully or partially shaved head, hair bleaching or coloring, crests, and hairstyles requiring the use of hairspray are linked to punk origins, whose movement abolished taboos related to hair.

Clothing items typically associated with sexual libertinism are exploited for the sake of provocation and to claim a certain individual freedom, whether experienced or not: excessive makeup, short skirts, fishnets, handcuffs, chains, studs, and other metal spikes, piercing, etc.

The desire to stand out in a society considered too conformist is reflected in dress codes that are opposite to those usually used. Jewelry is silver and not gold. Clothing is torn, accessorized (Do it yourself, badges), deconstructed (pants with laces, metal rings, zippers, and other straps) rather than sober. Shoes – such as Doc Martens or Rangers – are big and often colorful in contrast to classic discreet shoes. Dr. Martens shoes have long been the archetype of “the” gothic shoe before the rise of New Rock during the 1990s.

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