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The gothic in haute couture

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To say something, or someone, is Goth brings about a prevailing image of a depressed adolescent adorned in black clothes from Hot Topic listening to Joy Division. This subculture emerged in the late 1970’s-early 80’s around the same time of the punk explosion. Like the punk movement, gothic is not only imbedded in an underground music scene; it is about a particular aesthetic style of displaying the body. Though some in the couture world may scoff at the seemingly morbid or kitsch style[1], many designers embraced it. The idea of fashion as temporal correlates to one’s own eventual destruction. The gothic style exudes this theme is its constricting structure and horrifying design. Northern Renaissance artists used symbolic momento mori, a reminder of one’s own eminent demise, in their works to relay this notion of time passing. These symbols now find themselves on the runways and in fashion magazines proliferated throughout the world. This iconography of dark fetishism appeals to many consumers, even those who do not consider themselves “gothic”.

The term Goth originated in antiquity. Often referred to as barbarians by the ancient Romans, the Germanic Goths and Vandals sacked Rome in 410AD[2]. As a style, the term Goth was not used until the Cinquecento to defame the decadence of all architecture constructed between 410-1419 (prior to the emergence of Florentine architect Brunelleschi). The architectural facades include pointed arches, piers, rib-vaults, stained-glass windows, arched doorways, tall roofs, and formidable towers[3]. This alteration of Christian architecture from the classical suggests a change in the needs of both the clergy and laity in Western Dark Age society. The construction aided in worship, as the choirs’ sound would resonate magnificently throughout the cathedral. Since the church, in Christian belief, is thought to house God, its design must exemplify holiness and awe; Gothic style did just that. Its elaborately superfluous manner was not only in worship of God, but a display of wealth. Patrons that donate to churches assumed their guarantee of access to Heaven in the afterlife, therefore, the gaudier the better! The architecture also reflects the duality of the divine in Christianity. A symbol for the kingdom of God, it embraces the celestial and the ephemeral. God as a divine being is forever, yet Jesus experienced humanity and death. This dichotomy is visible in the marriage of the pointed arches folding in on each other as the tip points to the divine. The purpose of a church is to provide a visually pleasing structure to hold a congregation of parishioners in their veneration[4].

The gothic mode of stylizing the body exudes some of the same themes of its architecture. Its decadent and degenerate style remains fascinating even today. As recent as this year (2009) high-end designers borrow and reconfigure motifs prevalent within the dark, macabre, terrifying, and assertive tradition. Alexander McQueen, notorious for incorporated the gothic into the fashion world, utilizes this style quite often. His Fall 2009 line showcased a number of designs considered gothic. The models are covered in fabric head to toe, as the gothic style of the quattrocento was characterized by long and billowy dresses with pointed headdresses, recreated by McQueen. The fashion is extremely constricting and tight, consisting of corsets and ties that almost stop all blood flow. This aspect almost alludes to a sexual bondage within the clothes, which causes the consumer to fetish the product even more. It’s dark and dangerous, but very sexy! Fashion designers play off this fetish of their commodities through their advertising and associations with popular gothic culture, such as literature and Hollywood horror films. Marxist philosopher, Walter Benjamin, discusses this fetishism of fashion: “the essence of fashion is fetishism, because sex appeal derives from the inorganic (clothing, jewelry)”[5]. When one decorates the body, they become a mannequin at a department store; the clothes are more alive and eternal than the living person. This idea manifests in the creations of gothic-inspired designers. Fashion, recycling styles and ideas, attempts to avoid death and decay. Through gothic fashion, however, “it teaches us to live beautifully with death”[6], meaning its momento mori imagery reminds humanity of its mortality and inevitable demise.

Recall the Alexander McQueen chiffon skull scarf. For the past few years (most notably 2007) one could not open a celebrity gossip magazine without seeing a photograph of a celebrity strolling down a Los Angeles street sporting one of these scarves. Many of these celebrities would never consider themselves Goth! This popularization of a subculture into mainstream popular culture indicates a desire to flirt with a dark and mysterious world. The fetishism of gothic fashion evokes a need for an individual self-expression which represents one’s own temporal nature through visual components of momento mori.



[1]Valerie Steele and Jennifer Park, Gothic: Dark Glamour (New York: Yale UP and The Fashion Institute of Technology, 2008), 20.

[2]Steele and Park, 4.

[3] Paul Frankl, “The General Problems of the Gothic Style”, Readings in Art History v.1 (1982): 390-391.

[4] Frankl, 412.

[5] Steele and Park, 65.

[6] Steele and Park, 66.

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