* Goth started out as a youth culture tribe in a London nightclub
* The most recognised song of the Goth era is Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus
* Being a Goth means signing up for a world view that embraces the shadows and peers into the darkness
Was Hamlet the world’s first Goth? It all adds up: A ghost, a skull, lace collars and a brooding disposition. Shakespeare might disagree, though the Goth style was born in England in the late 1970s as an offshoot of the punk-rock scene. And as punk never dies, neither does Goth. Over the last four decades, the subculture has grown to encompass dozens of distinct subgenres, from “cute but deadly” Gothic Lolitas in Japan with flamingo pink hair to cybergoths in Germany with a fondness for neon green hair extensions and goggles. What connects these styles is a love of the macabre, a certain dark aesthetic. For a Goth, every day is Halloween.
The romance of death
Goth started out as a youth culture tribe in a London nightclub tellingly named Batcave and has become a countercultural identity with global staying power. At first, it was all about the music that explored pain, suffering and death, and a fashion style that mixed mohawks, leather jackets, piercings, and tattoos. But as Goth became a distinct subculture, the legacy of punk and working-class angst of the Thatcher era was softened by an affinity for a more aristocratic and romantic, albeit still dark, view of the world. Goth aesthetic became a heady mix of English class symbolism — Dr Martens boots and Victorian mourning dresses, ripped black T-shirts and lace parasols, studded accessories and velvet waistcoats.
Regardless of gender, Goths favoured dark hair, lips, and clothes contrasted with pale skin and dramatic make-up. While ‘real Goths’ still listen to the music that started the movement, this well-recognised aesthetic became more commercialised in the 1990s and has been mined for fashion and pop-cultural references ever since. Think Bellatrix Lestrange — the evillest witch of the Harry Potter series, Alexander McQueen’s unaffordable but beautiful skull scarves, Edward Scissorhands by Tim Burton (a genuine Goth favourite), and the seemingly endless line of vampire romances targeted at young adults since Twilight .
Speaking of vampires. The most recognised song of the Goth era is Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus. For non-aficionados, it is a somewhat eerie sounding tune with wailing and echoing noises which certainly deliver one to the dark forests of Transylvania, where Bela Lugosi’s immortal Count Dracula is drinking the blood of his victims. Vampires, werewolves, demons, and ghosts — creatures of the night beyond the power of death — populate the subculture’s favourite Gothic horror stories. A 19th-century literary style characterised by gloom, the grotesque and the supernatural, Gothic novels embraced imagination, emotion, superstition, and a nostalgia for enchanted, less rational times. The same artistic notions are reflected in Gothic Revival architecture — elegance, mystery, a few gargoyles and a touch of the medieval make the Palace of Westminster in London, or its distant Indian cousin, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, a visually stunning landmark even today.
Gothic Revival flourished under the rule of Queen Victoria. The fashion of the era is a key source of inspiration for a modern Goth’s elaborate Neo-Victorian wardrobe filled with top hats, cravats, corsets, lace petticoats, gloves, and silver jewellery. But why all in black? Death comes closest to the living when we lose somebody. Mourning was a socially respectable activity in Victorian times with strict rules (particularly for women) on how to observe the passing of loved ones. Queen Victoria herself spent 40 years in mourning after the death of her husband, Prince Albert.
Hello darkness, my old friend
Dressing up as Frankenstein’s bride on a regular Wednesday raises some eyebrows. It is not necessarily the Goth aesthetic, but its darkly inclined philosophy that stirs and revolts mainstream society. How can the living be attracted to death and find unexpected beauty in its aesthetics? How can Goth style be both erotic and evil, feminine and androgynous, edgy and twisted in such a disconcerting manner?
Sigmund Freud considered Eros and Thanatos — the ‘desire to live’ and ‘death instincts’ to be the driving forces of humankind. The funereal and flamboyant elegance of Goths seems to intermingle these two as an everyday acknowledgement that life is but a mourning of our own unavoidable death. Or as Freud put it: “The goal of life is death”. Not one to fall into existential abyss in the face of such statements, Goths sniff at their blood red roses (strictly with thorns) and respond with black humour. They go on a picnic to the local cemetery, as per Victorian customs, to spend a quiet afternoon with their loved ones — both above and below ground. And just for good measure, they will “stop wearing black when they make a darker colour”.
Goths are children of the night. More than black eyeliner and nail polish, being a Goth means signing up for a world view that deliberately embraces the shadows and peers into the darkness. These morbid romantics agree with their beloved Edgar Allan Poe: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” Not us mere mortals, that is for sure.
Zsuzsanna Vári-Kovács is a writer and development professional based in Yangon
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