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What Is Goth? An Exploration of the Dark Subculture

Let’s go back to basics to explore the question, what is goth?

May 1, 2023
8 min read
a goth in front of a wall of red and green ivy. the goth has a wide brim hat on, a lace dress and dark red hair

Goth has become a significant subculture over the last few decades that has influenced music, fashion, literature, and film. But what is goth exactly? Let’s explore where it came from, the defining aesthetics of the subculture, its evolution in music, and its impact on literature and film.

The Origins of Goth

Goth culture emerged in the late 1970s in the United Kingdom. Its roots can be traced back to the post-punk scene that was characterized by angst-ridden lyrics, gloomy music, and an anti-establishment attitude. Bands such as Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus, and Sisters of Mercy, among others, were the pioneers of the genre.

The Emergence of Gothic Rock

Gothic rock is the cornerstone of goth music. It’s a fusion of post-punk and early 80s rock music that features dark and introspective lyrics, haunting melodies, and distinctive vocals. The term “gothic rock” was coined by music journalists to describe the gloomy sound of bands like Bauhaus and Joy Division.

The emergence of gothic rock was a response to the political and social climate of the time. The UK was in the midst of an economic recession, and there was a sense of disillusionment and despair among young people. Gothic rock provided an outlet for these feelings, with its brooding and melancholic sound.

The Role of Punk in Shaping Goth Culture

Punk rock was a significant influence on the genesis of goth. The punk scene in the UK was characterized by anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian beliefs. This ethos attracted artists who wanted to push back against societal norms and tap into feelings of alienation and estrangement.

Many early goth bands, such as The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees, started out as punk bands before transitioning to a more gothic sound. The punk influence can still be heard in the fast-paced rhythms and aggressive guitar riffs that are a hallmark of goth music.

siouxsie sioux and the banshees

Key Bands and Artists in the Early Goth Scene

The early goth scene was dominated by a few key bands and artists. These included Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, Bauhaus, Joy Division, Sisters of Mercy, and Virgin Prunes. Their music reflected the bleakness and despair of the time, as well as the disillusionment and rebellion of youth culture.

Siouxsie and the Banshees were known for their theatrical stage shows and Siouxsie Sioux’s distinctive vocals. The Cure’s early albums, such as “Pornography” and “Faith,” were influential in shaping the gothic sound. Bauhaus’s hit single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is often cited as one of the first gothic rock songs. Joy Division’s bleak lyrics and haunting melodies made them a favorite among goth fans. Sisters of Mercy’s fusion of gothic rock and dance music helped to popularize the genre in the 1980s. Virgin Prunes, from Ireland, were known for their avant-garde and experimental approach to music.

These early goth bands paved the way for future generations of goth musicians and fans. Today, goth culture continues to thrive, with new bands and artists emerging all the time.

Defining Goth Aesthetics

Gothic culture has been around for several decades, and it is a subculture that has its roots in punk rock and post-punk music. It is a culture that is often associated with darkness, melancholy, and a fascination with death. However, the goth aesthetic is much more than that.

Fashion and Style

Goth fashion is not just about wearing black. It’s about expressing oneself through clothing that is often considered unconventional. Goths often wear clothing that subverts mainstream fashion, pushing boundaries with offbeat accessories and unusual combinations of apparel. The style is characterized by black clothing, leather, and lace. Gothic fashions reflect a particular attitude that is at once dark, edgy, and romantic.

Goths often wear clothing that is inspired by Victorian and Edwardian fashion, incorporating corsets, top hats, and other vintage items. They also tend to wear jewellery that is often made of silver or pewter and features gothic motifs like crosses, skulls, and bats.

Goth style started as a DIY movement (and to many still is) but the subculture, alternative and goth brands started popping up all over the place. Now, if you’re not very good at making or DIYing your own clothes, then you don’t have to!

Makeup and Body Art

Goth makeup is a distinctive and defining part of the subculture. It typically features dramatic, smoky eyes, pale skin, and heavily-lined lips (I would like to caveat however that pale skin is not a prerequisite for being goth!!). Goths often use makeup to create a dramatic and theatrical look that is inspired by horror movies and other dark media. Body art, such as tattoos, piercings, and scarification, is also popular among those who identify as goth. These forms of body art are often used to express a love of darkness and to create a sense of individuality.

Gothic Architecture and Interior Design

The gothic aesthetic is also reflected in architecture and interior design. Gothic architecture originated in medieval Europe and is characterized by pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and soaring spires. Gothic interior design incorporates ornate furnishings, candelabras, and other items that bring a sense of foreboding and mystery to a space.

Many goths are drawn to the gothic aesthetic because of its romantic and melancholic qualities. Gothic architecture and interior design are often characterized by a sense of grandeur, mystery, and awe. This aesthetic is often reflected in gothic literature and art, which often features supernatural elements and a sense of the macabre.

In conclusion, the goth aesthetic is a complex and multifaceted culture that is characterized by a love of darkness, melancholy, and a fascination with death. It is a subculture that is often misunderstood, but it is one that has had a significant impact on fashion, music, and art.

The Evolution of Goth Music

Goth music has a rich and complex history, with a diverse range of subgenres and influences. From its origins in the post-punk scene of the late 1970s to its continued evolution today, goth music has remained a vital and influential force in alternative music.

The Rise of Darkwave and Ethereal Wave

One of the most significant developments in goth music was the emergence of darkwave and ethereal wave in the 1980s and 90s. These subgenres were characterized by their moody, introspective lyrics and atmospheric soundscapes. Bands like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and This Mortal Coil helped to popularize these genres, drawing on influences from ambient music, dream pop, and classical music.

Darkwave and ethereal wave were particularly popular among fans of goth music who were drawn to the genre’s introspective and emotional qualities. The music often dealt with themes of loss, alienation, and despair, and was known for its haunting melodies and ethereal vocals.

The Influence of Industrial and EBM

Another significant influence on goth music was the industrial and electronic body music (EBM) scenes. Bands like Skinny Puppy, Nine Inch Nails, and Ministry incorporated elements of industrial noise and electronic beats into their music, creating a more aggressive and experimental sound.

Industrial and EBM were popular among fans of goth music who were drawn to the genre’s darker, more aggressive side. The music often dealt with themes of violence, power, and technology, and was known for its harsh, abrasive sound.

Modern Goth Bands and Artists

Goth music continues to evolve today, with new bands and artists carrying on the tradition of the genre. Some notable contemporary goth bands include Fields of the Nephilim, The Horrors, and She Past Away, among others.

These bands draw on a wide range of influences, from post-punk and new wave to shoegaze and black metal. They continue to explore the themes and sounds that have made goth music such a powerful and enduring force in alternative music.

Despite its many subgenres and influences, goth music remains a distinct and recognizable genre, with a dedicated fanbase and a rich cultural history. Whether you’re drawn to the moody soundscapes of darkwave and ethereal wave, the aggressive energy of industrial and EBM, or the diverse range of contemporary goth bands, there’s something for everyone in the world of goth music.

Goth Literature and Film

Goth culture has been a source of fascination for many, and its influence can be seen in many aspects of modern popular culture. From literature to film, goth aesthetics and themes have captured the imaginations of audiences around the world.

Classic Gothic Novels

The gothic literary tradition dates back to the late 18th century and includes classic novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. These works feature eerie settings, supernatural elements, and themes of romance and horror. Gothic literature has been a major influence on horror and fantasy genres, and these classic novels continue to be widely read and studied today.

For example, in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the monster is a symbol of the dangers of unchecked scientific progress and the consequences of playing God. The novel explores themes of isolation, revenge, and the search for meaning in life.

The Gothic Revival in Modern Literature

The gothic revival in literature continued into the 20th century, with writers like Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite exploring gothic themes in their works. Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, for example, follow the lives of vampires and their struggles with immortality, morality, and love. Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls is a gothic horror novel that explores themes of identity, sexuality, and the search for belonging.

More recently, the gothic genre has seen a resurgence in popular culture with the success of books like Twilight and TV shows like American Horror Story. These works have brought gothic themes to a new generation of audiences and have helped to keep the genre relevant and exciting.

Iconic Goth Films and TV Shows

Goth culture has also made its presence felt in film and television. Some iconic examples include The Crow, The Hunger, The Addams Family, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These films and TV shows have helped shape popular perceptions of goth culture and its aesthetics.

The Crow is a gothic action film that tells the story of a man who comes back from the dead to avenge his own murder and that of his fiancée. The film is known for its dark, brooding atmosphere and its iconic soundtrack, which features songs by The Cure and Nine Inch Nails.

The Addams Family is a gothic comedy that follows the lives of a wealthy and eccentric family. The film is known for its macabre humor and its celebration of the unconventional and bizarre.

In conclusion, goth culture has left a meaningful impact on art, fashion, music, and more, and its influence continues to be felt today. Whether you identify as goth or not, its rich and diverse history is worthy of exploration and appreciation. So next time you pick up a gothic novel or watch a gothic film, take a moment to appreciate the artistry and creativity that goes into creating these haunting and unforgettable works of art.


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Hi, I’m Darcie.

Bound in Bone is my goth fashion and lifestyle blog. I like to write about dark outfits, spooky interiors and the goth lifestyle in general. You’ll find everything from alternative markets to what to wear to the gym, and more!

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