Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Gothic Fashion: The Power of the Haute Macabre

by Alex Hess

“They play up their otherness, ‘happening’ on the world as aliens, inscruables” (Hebdige, 121) My essay explored the ideals behind the bondage chains and black lipstick associated with Gothic fashion and look at the fragile power structure between the Goth subculture and the ‘straight world’ in contemporary European society.


I propose that it can be interpreted through two different lenses: the fetishism of objects and the employment of fantasy clothing. In looking at ‘fetish parties,’ we can see examples of fetish wear being brought to the surface. Marx asserts that “fashion itself is only another medium that lures (sexus) even deeper into the material world” (Lehmann, 434). In other words, fashion’s act of covering up the body leads the unconscious association of certain items, such as the high heel, with sexuality. These leather corsets and dangerously high heels manipulate the power of associations apparent in today’s society by magnifying them. By becoming the physical manifestation of a taboo, the gothic subculture asserts their voluntary status as outsiders, as representations of all that is repressed in contemporary society.


Both Gothic shops that I visited in Paris doubled as sex shops, selling items pertaining to bondage an sadomasochism. This act can be viewed as a conscious act of rebellion according to Hebdige, the surfacing of existing social codes within the Gothic community arises “at a time when such an affirmation of the classic concerns of working-class life (is) considered inappropriate” (Hebdige, 79). They have no obviously apparent political goals, however, their logos focus around morbid and romantic symbols, and not political ones. Their focus is centered on a willful retreat from society by questioning normative gender identity.


Gothic subculture also questions gender roles and androgyny by playing with the power of associations and reversal of fashion codes. Certain couples set up a number of visual precedents that knowledgably violate power codes within gender, the woman adopting the masculinity associated with the American cowboy and the male unabashedly sporting historic symbols of feminine power. Hebdidge suggests this is an attempt to escape normative gender roles. “Bowie’s meta-message was escape- from class, from sex, from personality, from obvious commitment- into a fantasy past… or a science-fiction future” (Hebdige, 61).

The Gothic subculture does not just restrict itself to fetish wear, but ranges from fantasy costumes turned street wear to dressing like an animae character. These looks have little to no relation to social constructs, but estrange themselves through antiquity paired with surreal and fabricated elements or a bricolage of elements so diverse that they defy all interpretation.


Lehman proposes that clothing is connected to the wearer emotionally in saying what we wear is a “protection against the general unfriendliness of the world as a whole; or expressed more psychologically, a reassurance against the lack of love” (Flugel, 131). Gothic fashion sometimes features several heavyset body chains that cover the entire chest or back area. This direct connection between armor, Flugel’s theory of psychological protection and Gothic fashion lends itself to the subculture’s attempt to shield themselves from the outside world that they perceive as dangerous.


We can see Gothic fashion’s relationship with Haute Couture as a “two-way practice of appropriation, parody, and sign entropy” (Gill, 495) as opposed to an empty symbol “worn without reference to its original subcultural meaning” (Polhemus, 331). , in the case of gothic fashion, the power is returned to the Goth by bringing him further away from reality by associating him with the otherworldliness of a haute couture show.

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