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Vampire update, plus trash fashion

June 26, 2012 4 comments

A couple of quick things.

Remember the ‘vampire kit’ I mentioned in the previous post, that was up for auction? Sold for £7,500 – a bit over 9,000 euros, a bit under $12,000. The upside is that the purchaser was the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (UK) and it will be on display there.

Also, today my eye caught another BBC report on a subject that interests me – trash fashion. No, not trashy fashion (well ok that can be entertaining sometimes) but the repurposing of found objects into fashion designs.

It’s a bit like something I played with for my own amusement a couple of years back, taking discarded car hubcaps and using a combination of paint and found items to turn them into masks. They were a little like tribal masks, except I don’t belong to a tribe (maybe I’m ‘untribeable’?) and don’t know any ‘tribe’ that uses such materials.

No, wait, you can see stuff like that around the place – music festivals, for example, where people like the Mutoid Waste Company show off their designs, and locations such as the Abode of Chaos in France.

And no, I don’t have the masks since we moved house though I might possibly make another one sometime if I get to a point where I have that much time on my hands.

It’s also a bit like the dada movement in art, using found objects and re-purposing, tweaking or juxtaposing them to create new effects. But in this case we’re talking about  fashion designers using old plastic bottles, bits of toys and other ‘trash’ and incorporating them into one-off designs. I like the whole re-use/re-cycle ethic and this kind of ‘up-cycling’ of trash into high-value objects via the application of imagination and design certainly appeals. Maybe because it parallels what fiction writers like me try to do – up-cycle words into attractive, interesting, attention-grabbing narratives?

The story, anyway, is on the BBC website as ‘The fashion for turning junk into art‘ (26 June 2012).

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Now we are all goths

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment

People who know me will now that I’ve been, if mostly marginally, involved in goth culture on and off for around a decade. But it seems to me that over the last three or four years it has become its own memento mori, with many fewer people at goth events and a certain ossification of its forms. And yet this has happened at a time when the fashions of goth, and interest in some of its preoccupations, have become very much part of the mainstream.

So what happened? Has the subculture, having been plundered by fashion houses, TV productions and publishers, given up the ghost? Was it just a case of mainstream culture picking up on it as it began to fade? And what does my crystal ball tell me about the future of goth?

First things first. ‘Goth culture’ is a subculture that started in the late 1970s/early 1980s, around the time punk lost its initial visceral attractions. It’s about music and fashion, but it’s also a state of mind, a set of values, a worldview. Like many subcultures, the view from ‘inside’ is much more fragmented than the view outsiders would have of it. There are 20 or so different identifiable styles in fashion and music sub-genre, and they often don’t talk to each other. However it does have unifying aspects. Most goths (in the UK at least) will acknowledge the subcultural importance of the twice-annual Whitby Goth Weekend that’s run since 1994.

The music and fashion is clearly of central importance, and other cultural forms – literature, art and so on – are very secondary. That’s not to say they don’t exist. There’s a gothic ‘literature’, from novels to comic strips, much of it in the horror and dark fantasy genres. A great deal of it is published in niche magazines that run for brief periods of time before folding, or is available online (I wrote some of it myself, incidentally, for a magazine that’s long since vanished). There are artists such as Anne Sudworth and Emma Tooth who enjoy success within and sometimes outside the subculture. And there’s even Repo: The Genetic Opera, a gothic and gory successor to Rocky Horror that was first produced in the US and is now becoming known in the UK (remarkably, the DVD version has Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton among the cast).

But none of this eclipses the fashion and the music, and none of it really constitutes a ‘core’ of subcultural work that many (or even a small percentage) of goths would recognise as specifically gothic in nature. In a recent book, Contemporary Gothic (2006), Catherine Spooner namechecks half a dozen contemporary artists and several authors and film-makers who work in the gothic mould – yet it’s comparatively rare to find goths who recognise the names and know the works. Indeed it’s likely that almost any material perceived as gothic by those outside the culture would not be accepted as such by those inside it, even if they are aware of it and perhaps even cite it as an influence on them.

As a side note, among the various subgroups (romatigoths, cybergoths…) we should probably now add academigoths: a group that specialises in finding, and claiming as gothic, cultural artefacts that deal with dark and deviant themes – whether or not goths generally would accept such claims or even be familiar with the material.

That said, Spooner is perceptive in identifying other common elements of the worldview.

First, gothic subculture as we know it today was essentially an invention of the late 1970s and 1980s. While it has appropriated older and often literary themes – Frankenstein, Dracula, Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Lovecraft – it is very selective in so doing. It is in no way a reprise of Victorian gothic (okay, Lovecraft was the wrong period, 1890-1937, but you get the idea).

Second, its preoccupation with darker themes – death, self-harm, insanity, sexual deviance, obsession, the occult – can be read as a preoccupation with the end of innocence. It speaks of a politics of cynicism, betrayal and exploitation, and discovery of sexuality outside conventional bounds. It is about a world-view that sees society as fragmented, power and authority frequently misused, and the rules of civilised society treated with contempt and hypocrisy by those who are supposed to uphold them. In such a situation, it becomes a rational response to create one’s own subcultural tribal affiliations and one’s own rules.

Goth is hardly the only subculture in which we can find these sentiments. From the beginning of the rock’n’roll era onwards, youth subcultures have seen adult society in negative ways. For that matter, dystopian views are equally common in many areas that even today remain severely damaged by the economic and political shifts that started with Thatcherism. Yet one doesn’t see these dark themes explored in the same way, or with same detailed attention to fashion, in mining villages that suffered at the hands of the police in the 1984-5 miners’ strike and have never recovered from pit closure, or in socially excluded council estates.

Moreover, it’s not as though goth subculture expresses its understanding overtly or with political self-consciousness. There is, as it were, no ‘goth manifesto’. There is no ‘movement’, no collective view about how society should change, no social, economic or political agenda. It is, however, a ‘fashion statement’ that is a statement. The look says: contemporary society and normality is just not good enough. It says: the dark themes that preoccupy us are not fictions; they are metaphors, descriptions of the way the world really is. After all, how many of us feel our employers would really like to drink our blood, or that our political masters secretly believe we are no better than zombies?

Similarly, if liberty and personal choice mean anything at all, why should we not please ourselves in our private lives? Within the goth world, gender roles and looks are often fluid and practices ranging from S&M to chastity are easily accepted (and yes, there are people who are into both; beat me, bite me, but you can’t fuck me). The attitude is: the choice is ours to make and no one has a right to take that freedom away. We can invent and reinvent our own lives.

It would be easy to see goth as a 1980s hangover, a subculture with a dwindling number of members, a social curiosity on a par with Teddy Boys or Mods and Rockers. And in some respects it is. Goth clubs over the last few years seem to attract fewer and fewer patrons, and the bands smaller audiences. Even the headline goth event,  Whitby Goth Weekend, has (so I’m told) begun to look emaciated compared to several years ago. Many of those who were goths in the 1980s are now in their forties, settled with jobs, families and mortgages that make dressing up and clubbing a more complicated lifestyle choice.

Yet it is somehow more than this. Even as the goth subculture began to weaken, gothic sensibilities began to slip into mainstream culture. There had of course been weak forms of it for many years, in the form of Buffy and horror/vampire movies aimed principally at a teenage audience. For a slightly older audience there were, for example, Poppy Z Brite’s novels. But from around 2008, gothis motifs and styles started to find their way into TV advertisements, especially for perfume, alcohol and chocolates, and especially during the winter/Christmas season. In 2009 this trend was pursued by TV programming such as True Blood, based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris that first appeared in 2001. They might best be described as vampire horror for adults, with the TV series including relatively explicit sexual scenes and some S&M. As of January 2010, a search for ‘goth’ as a tag on trendhunter.com brings up the following, all new developments in fashion and design identified between October and December 2009:

  • A new brand of black lipstick
  • A new line of handmade goth/vampire wedding gowns
  • Two fashion designers independently promoting a ‘dark’ goth look for spring 2010
  • A cluster of designers promoting gothic-inspired headwear, tiaras and jewellery
  • A cluster of new fashion accessories coming on the market with futuristic metal cybergoth-inspired designs
  • A series of CD album covers and music videos for pop/rock artists (incuding Rihanna and Lady Gaga, neither of whom immediately inspire particularly gothic associations) using goth-inspired imagery

Some of this slippage is likely to be because fashion designers and artists take inspiration and style from a wide range of sources; pastiche, and subcultural or cross-cultural borrowing is extremely common. Many of those inside goth subculture would no doubt want to put a great deal of critical distance between themselves and the mass media/mass culture representations of gothic. Even so, one might ask why certain borrowings, in particular those tagged as gothic, seem to have more cultural resonance and be more influential and enduring than others.

The answer is probably that the look and its perceived message does chime with a widespread perception that we live in dark times. Now, I don’t want to over-sell my pitch. Wearing eyeliner and listening to Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein or Combichrist isn’t exactly a revolutionary or seditious act. Goth style isn’t a solution to an existential dilemma. Goth subculture is, in political terms, inchoate and unformed (though because many of its members are relatively well-educated and net-savvy it’s not uninformed).

But its seepage into the mainstream is a marker for, a reminder of, the existential problem we all do face. At one level it might represent the teenage angst of ‘what is the meaning of life?’, but it also represents a deeper dissatisfaction with the exploitation, cynicism, hypocrisy and uncaring policies that surround all of us as adults.

For all that, goth doesn’t provide answers. It doesn’t even raise critical questions. But it does make visible an attitude that is increasingly shared across mainstream society. Plus, it looks startling and feels good. In the right environment, it still does what it wanted to do in the 1980s: épater la bourgeoisie, in the same way that Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Wilde and other did over a century ago.

So what’s the likely future of goth? As a subculture it’s had ups and downs, and is currently down. It seems static in many ways and may continue on a downward spiral for a couple of years yet. But there are still young people newly adopting the style, and some crossover with emergent trends such as steampunk. At some point it will no doubt be reinvented through a myriad of individual choices, and probably self-consciously seek to distance itself from whatever aspects the mainstream has plundered. It is and will remain very much the style of the outsider, of those who want to be outsiders. But since current social and economic trends are hell-bent on making us all outsiders, I’d wager that in some form, goth style is here to stay. It won’t be so much a case of goth creeping out again from its shadow, as the shadow expanding to cover us all.

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