Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style

May 28, 2009

Goth, it seems, is having a bit of a moment. Last season's catwalks were full of dark and sinister confections, subsequently copied by high-street retailers from Urban Outfitters to Marks & Spencer. The New Musical Express recently conferred its "Godlike Genius Award" on seminal eyeliner-botherers The Cure, while devoting a double-page spread to emerging alternative bands influenced by the 1980s Goth scene. August will mark three decades exactly since the release of Bauhaus' debut single, Bela Lugosi's Dead. Undergoing a diamond anniversary of sorts, the subculture that wouldn't go away is now not just back, but cool.

Dunja Brill's Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style is the latest in a recent clutch of academic texts investigating the Goth phenomenon. Its timing may be fortuitous, but the mainstream media's fascination with Goths plays little part in Brill's rigorously researched, ethnographic study. Goths themselves are the primary object of attention here: what they wear, what they think about it, and what this might mean.

Brill's attitude is sympathetic yet sharply analytical of her respondents' statements. Her self-confessed liminal status as clubber turned researcher and an avid long-term participant in the music scene, who nevertheless has not always conformed to Goth standards of appearance, enables what she calls a "poignantly critical insider study".

Brill's argument is a convincing and important one: that despite the outward appearance of transgression, androgyny in Goth subcultural style often disguises or even functions to reinforce conventional gender roles.

It is usually only male Goths whose androgyny is valorised, and a "feminine" appearance often has the effect of increasing their attractiveness to Goth women, confirming heterosexual courtship patterns. Make-up, skirts and feminine accessories worn by Goth men are subtly modulated from those of their female counterparts, and frequently employed paradoxically to enhance masculinity, as a kind of bravado or warpaint. Goth women tend to opt for a hyperfeminine look, which all too frequently imposes similar pressures to mainstream fashion.

Brill's account raises further questions. Her interview material was collected circa 2002-03, leading one to speculate whether the gendered meanings of Goth might have shifted during its 30-year history: does the emphasis on hyperfeminine perfection in 21st-century Goth reflect a retrogressive movement in Western culture more generally, for example? The differences between German and British Goth culture are not always clearly signalled, although there appear to be important distinctions between them, not least in how they are framed by each country's mainstream culture.

The focus on interview-based material, too, means that the clothes themselves and the sometimes illuminating traditions in which they could be placed (male dandyism, for instance) are subordinated to the self-construction of their wearers.

Finally, despite Brill's concluding emphasis on the "individual negotiation" of subcultural participants' gender identities, the very power of her argument tends to create a single narrative of Goth style. Many of the most fascinating parts of the book offer glimpsed exceptions to the gendered norm, such as respondent Petit Scarabee, who enjoys switching between conventionally feminine and boyish dress, or Cybergoth, a futuristic style that appears to operate quite differently in terms of its construction of androgyny.

The book is strikingly illustrated with black-and-white photographs and is highly readable: Brill has elicited some fascinating material from her interviewees, and her analysis is perceptive and witty. It should provide thought-provoking reading, not only for subcultural scholars, but also for those within the scene itself. It offers a welcome corrective to sentimental investments in transgression, while cautiously celebrating the potential for renegotiating gender that Goth subculture affords.

Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style

By Dunja Brill. Berg, 224pp, £55.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9781845207670 and 07687. Published 1 November 2008

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