Identifiable by a preference for black and an interest in the darker side of life, Goths have been a presence in our towns and cities for over 25 years. Mixing the theatricality of the New Romantic’s dress with Punk oriented music, Goth has become one of the most enduring although popularly mocked of renegade youth cultures.
The name derives from the funereal dress and pan-stick make-up worn by both men and women. The early Goth style can loosely by described as Gothic Horror as seen through the lens of early Hollywood. It is the films such as Dracula (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and the B-movies of the 1950s that provided Goth with its early style references. In recent years Goth style has looked to the techno-future as well as the romantic past, altering both the look and the sound of Goth dress and music.
The two outfits in Brighton Museum’s Renegade collection are examples of mid-late 1980s and contemporary Goth wear and illustrate how this subculture continues to change over the years, arguably making Goth one of the most dynamic and forward-looking of renegade youth styles.
Goth style developed from the androgynous fishnet and lace outfits of the early Post-Punk Goths to the cyber-fetishism of Nu-Metal in the late 1990s. Where once Goth dress was funereal, displaying romantic references to 19th century mourning wear such as crucifixes, lace and velvet, it is now just as likely to have futuristic cyber elements.
This change in dress style often centers around styles of music; Cyber-Goths preferring a harder ‘Industrial’ sound will wear futuristic style elements such as ‘New Rock’ boots that appear to reference science-fiction robots rather than the winkle-pickered dandies of traditional Goth.
Winkle-picker style boots with buckles and metal studs were an essential part of the Goth outfits of the 1980s. This pair of boots have been customised by the wearer with “little spirals, Klimt designs… shredded scarves, things that had got particularly old.”
Brighton Goth Paula Huntbach recalls the hairstyles that were an essential part of the Goth look.
“The first thing I did was my hair…I had excessively long hair in the mid 80s, down almost to my knees, and it was a kind of reddish colour….it was eye-catching, but I didn’t like it, I wanted black spiky hair. So I went to a hairdresser which I’d never been to in my life….and I sat down and said I wanted to have kind of black hair, spikyish, I was trying to explain about wanting to be a Goth without actually voicing it. The very first hairdresser refused to do it….But another girl in the salon came over and she, oh she was wonderful….And she set about dying it black and then she put lots of layers in it and she put lots of mousse and hair gel in it and she spiked it all up and when I looked in the mirror it was a total transformation, I was a Goth. And she showed me how to backcomb it all and I left the salon and walked, I remember walking along Kensington Gardens in Brighton just looking side-long into all the shop windows at myself. I was walking on air. I just felt 10 foot high, it was fabulous and it was a look which I kept for over 10 years.”
Make up was as important for Goth boys as it was for girls. They both shared the limited colour palette of black and purple on a white pan-stick face. Drawing heavily on make-up worn in silent films and the early 1930s horror films, the effect was to give a striking nocturnal palor.
Brighton Goth Angela Charles recalls the makeup that was an essential part of the Goth look:
‘When I first became a Goth, if I went to a club, I’d put all the white make-up on, black lipstick, black eyes, absolutely go over the top with the make-up. I loved my black lipstick. I’d take it everywhere with me just in case a little bit came off… My eye make-up, I’d have like a massive chunky eyeliner and it would go on. Then I’d put black eye-shadow on and try and merge it all in and just looked like I’d been whacked in the face. I loved it. My cheekbones I’d put some of the black lipstick and like rub it in, so that you’d get this like grey sort of shading underneath my cheekbones so they’d looked even more sort of angular than they are. I just must have looked so thin.’
Brighton Goth Paula Huntbach explains how she put together her uniquely personal Goth look:
“I was a Goth in the late 80s and I did therefore wear a lot of black clothes. I didn’t have much money then, I didn’t have a job, I did bits and pieces of work but I didn’t have a full-time job so most of my clothes are clothes which I made and adapted from things which I bought in jumble sales or charity shops. And that was very important to me and also to the friends I had at the time. Gothic clothing you could buy but if you made it yourself, it was considered amongst the people I knew particularly, to be better in some way. You hadn’t gone out and just bought the look from a shop, you’d adapted, bought bits of lace, dyed and sewn them up together, created one’s own unique look.”
The Batcave opened in July 1982 at the Gargoyle in London’s Soho and was the first and most famous Goth club night, helping to establish and define Goth as a distinct style. Decked out in cages and cobweb-like netting, the Batcave provided live music from bands such as Alien Sex Fiend, Sex Gang Children and Specimen, together with a dancefloor and projector screens on which were played 1930s horror films and 1950s b-movies. Attended by Punks, Psychobillies and New Romantics, the club was particularly important in spreading the style because it went ‘on tour’, bringing it’s own in-house Goth style to provincial towns and cities, rather than maintaining a metropolitan exclusivity as the earlier New Romantic clubs had.
Brighton had its own early Goth club ‘Subterfuge’, that was held at The Apollo Hotel. Described at the time by the club-hosts as being ‘like the The Batcave with disco’ it eventually moved to the Manhattan.
Music has always played a central role in Goth identity; Bela Lugosi’s Dead by Bauhaus, released in 1979, is recognized as the first Goth record, combining gloomy sound and Gothic subject matter, the song helped to define the subculture, cementing Goth interests in all things vampire-related. Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees had been one of the leading female role-models of punk and as their music changed, became the unwilling Queen of Goth style with her severe ‘silent film-star’ panstick make-up and crimped, back-combed hair.
In the 1980s Goth was often associated with Leeds and the Midlands cities, but Brighton had, and still has its own Goth bands. Bone Orchard were fronted by Chrissie, who in the early 1980s also co-hosted Brighton’s only Goth/Alternative club Subterfuge.
Since the late 1990s, Goth has had a new icon in the form of the controversial US artist Marilyn Manson. With a heavier industrial sound, and extreme make-up, his look and his music are more futuristic then earlier Goth sounds and styles, whilst still making reference to past Goth style.
Oral history interview in Brighton & Hove Museums’ Renegade collection (OH000028).
This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website.