Wednesday, March 7, 2012

When Subcultures Are Co-Opted for Fashion

Me circa 1988
Sal of Already Pretty brought up a very relevant topic this week: What is the line between sartorial personae and poseur dressing? As goths, I'm sure we've all seen this happen ... from younger kids wearing band T-shirts but obviously not knowing anything about those bands to fashionable women wearing black nail polish because some magazine says black is the "in" color this season ... in the past 20 years, we've had goth co-opted by mainstream fashion. And there's nothing like a little cultural appropriation to get me in a ranty mood, so here ya go!*

If you're old enough to remember a time before Hot Topic stores were in every U.S. mall, you know how gothic fashion used to be a signifier of a weird little group of outcasts, kids who were picked on at school because we didn't like the same stuff as the popular kids, we listened to strange music from the U.K., we probably read a lot of odd books (maybe science-fiction & fantasy & horror, maybe Victorian novels too), some of us were queer, some of us were as misunderstood at home as at school. We wore black on the outside because we felt black on the inside (TM). And we had to work pretty hard to get that black -- we scoured thrift stores & clearance racks for velvet & lace, we safety-pinned patches on our jackets, we even sewed our own clothes, & if we saved up the cash, we ordered pointy boots from England, & we could only get black nail polish & lipstick at Halloween.

OK, enough nostalgia! My point is that subcultures start somewhere in the distant past & are slowly brought into the mainstream (that would be cultural assimilation, for the non-academics still reading). Today, you can hop to the mall or jump online & buy everything from dark makeup not intended for goths but that looks incredibly gothic to hardcore PVC & chains oh-my-goth gothic clothes. All you need is a credit card.

And how do we, who claim to be goth in some respect, feel about that?

Symbols matter
Look, I don't tart myself up in anything remotely uber-goth anymore. I have no time, place, nor real inclination to do so. But since I was about 16, I've considered myself goth at heart, & that has not changed no matter my clothes nor anything else about me. As many have said, it's about more than the clothes -- but, crucially, the clothes are the symbol, the outward manifestation of what's on the inside.

The studded cockring on my left wrist is a signifier of where I've been, what I've experienced, the pain, the joy, the people, the memories, it carries a little bit of everything that being goth means to me. I wear it with every single outfit I wear, every day, aside from historical costumes (& only then because I'm a stickler for accuracy; yeah, I take off my glasses too).

PerkyCorpGoth 2012
I'm of two minds when goth fashion is co-opted by the mainstream. I'm annoyed by Them taking away something that has Meaning to Me. But then again, I'll buy the damn makeup & clothes because, well, I'm old & I have a frickin' credit card now. My inner 16-year-old is giggling with glee to be able to dress up so nice for a change!

Of course, someone else could wear this stuff & look entirely not goth, not even try, not even want to. It's when someone puts the black dress & the black boots & the black nail polish together & says "I'm going goth today, hee hee!" that I roll my eyes. As if our history, outlook, & culture are merely a costume that you can play dress-up with. Thanks for the dehumanization.

How do you feel? Do you care one way or the other?

Related links:
*Note: For any snippy non-goths reading, yes, I know this may not be cultural appropriation on the level of Native Americans being used as sports team mascots (offensive & tired) or supposedly ethnic clothing lines at chain stores (offensive & commercialized)  or the vast number of sexy "insert racial stereotype here" Halloween costumes (offensive & stupid). But every time the mainstream gets away with another episode of this scott-free, the more likely it will continue to happen bigger & badder. And if you're still feeling snippy, check out the f-yeah cultural appropriation tumbler :-)


  1. Given the extreme commercialization of our current society, it seems like pretty much everything is up for marketing these days. If we were just inventing the goth subculture right now, somebody would pick it up and do a commercial run with it. I'm not offended by people putting on the trappings of the subculture because it makes it easier for me to go about my daily business without getting the side-eye. Also, I bought my first Misfits T-shirt before I knew anything about them as a band and it led me to the sometimes the external comes before the internal.

    I am actually more offended by the shoddy merchandise some people make, and then slap a "goth" label on, than by the poor sods who buy it.

  2. Were I live there are lots of people who doesn't know what goth actually is. Young kids in black clothes listen to metal. Girls in their 30s something with half shaved head, listen to electro pop. It's through the music you find the older goths in my age, they dress like people in common, well most of them.
    I completely agree with Andi, when they put the goth label on anything that is black or sucks.
    Your perky goth outfit is awesome! I love how you match colours. Have a lovely weekend!

  3. Oh and by the way...It was impossible to find cool clothes when I was a teenager. I simply had to sew my own clothes.

  4. I'm not goth...and I wasn't goth back in the 80s (I LOVE your picture, by the way!). I always wanted to wear what I wanted to wear, which back then, was sometimes pointy black leather boots (thank you, Le Chateau!) and a leather studded cuff, with green hair and Cleopatra eyes. Sometimes it was elbow-length gloves, a long skirt and a vintage fur coat. I have always hated being categorized, as I've felt that many different looks have expressed many different sides of my personality. I'm not just one thing or the other - I'm as many things as I choose to be.

    I hope I'm not offending anyone by wearing my goth-ish accoutrements - I've had my leather cuff (similar to yours but with 2 rows of studs) for over 20 years. I wrote angst-ridden poetry, read horror and sci-fi and listened to Depeche Mode and the Cure, but I didn't identify as goth. My cuff reminds me of who I was, the things I've done, and keeps me in touch with that side of myself. I don't ever want to forget that.

    I do dislike intensly when I see someone wearing a band t-shirt when they don't know anything about the band, though. That drives me nuts.

    Sheila (of Ephemera)

  5. (This comment is meant not as an opinion one way or another, just a point that I find interesting to consider.) It's not just the mainstream that co-opts fashion. A military influence can be seen in some elements of punk style. Goth and steampunk fashion borrow heavily from Victorian style.

  6. I'm so glad you expanded on your ideas here, Trystan. The topic got many people fired up, and I'm grateful for your contributions to that conversation. And thanks, of course, for the shout-out!

  7. Sheila, you're probably the most original fashionista I've seen yet online! You look so wholly & completely like *you* that it'd be impossible to label you as anything else ;-)

    I've known plenty of people who are, say, a little bit goth & a little bit rave & a little bit preppy (insert dated "little bit country / little bit rock 'n roll" reference here). And their wardrobe shows all of these either mixed or one on one day & one on another. But that's authentic, that's a person expressing parts of themselves.

    It's when someone puts on on an outfit & says "I'm playing at being X today" that bugs me. Treating a culture like a costume, like play-time, or worse, trying to be cool or ironic.

  8. Mainstream fashion goes thru cycles influenced by military clothing or different time periods, that's common.

    But there are specific reasons for the military & Victorian influences in the subcultures. Early punks often got clothes from military surplus stores because it was cheap & durable, then they'd modify it. Victorian fashion is a direct link to the aesthetics of Victorian gothic horror novels a la Sheridan LeFanu & Bram Stoker.

    It's funny to watch steampunk -- it's SO new, & it grew SO fast! It evolved from a subgenre into subculture almost in the blink of an eye, & it's practically a mainstream commodity right now. I will not be surprised to see gears & goggles at NY Fashion Week real soon (or did it happen already & I missed it?).

  9. Yep, wanting clothes in my own style was a HUGE inspiration to sew & gave me lots of practice :)

  10. When I felt like I could.not.stop.commenting, whoa, I knew it was time for my own blog post! I don't have time write many think-y posts, but you set off a great topic.

  11. I always hesitated to call myself goth because when I was figuring out my identity was right when goth was going mainstream and I did not identify with the Hot Topic crowd. But the "goth" aesthetic is probably the closest thing that comes to hitting all the right notes for me. Thing is, I'm too lazy to make a serious effort to dress like it, so I dunno... Maybe I'm a poseur. Or at least a fashion dilettante. Most days I think I probably look like Stevie Nicks rolled out of bed hung over more than anything. ;)

    I'm not sure where I was going with this... But yeah, appropriation is hard to avoid completely, because humans are programmed for it (probably an adaptation tactic from our wilderness days). What I really object to, however, are the obvious appropriations of subcultures or oppressed groups where it's done on a mass scale and orchestrated to make a large profit for a faceless company who has no clue what they're marketing to a group that has no clue what they're buying other than it's "in" because they see it in their favorite store at the mall. Like the awful Urban Outfitters Native American feather headdress scandal from a couple years back. You have to be a total douche bag not to realize that A) Native American culture is something you, Clueless White Person, need to handle with care; and B) you may think you're being edgy, or you're above all that so called petty crap, or that you're 1/32nd Choctow (or was it Cree? Whatever, Mom said great great great grandma was Indian so there) so therefore you can do whatever you want, but to people who actually live a day to day life with these artifacts as their treasured symbols of identity and culture, YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE. Hell, you're an asshole to Privileged White Girl Me sitting here shaking my head at your dumbassness for being really THAT STUPID. Especially if you paid UO god knows how much for a mass produced feather headdress that was probably manufactured in a sweatshop in Taiwan by twelve year olds to buy the damn thing.

    So yeah. Hot Topic killed my dreams and Grunge destroyed my soul, so I'm bitter. Bite me, society!

  12. I would love to see an actress perform this piece as a monologue, just for the payoff of the suddenly cheerful, switched gears at the end. LOL Though, I suppose I approach the idea as being appreciative of your passion and vigor; might you regard it as an appropriation of your thoughts? =) Seems it may be a fine line.

    Hope I don't offend. I tease in that last part as an afterthought. Truly meant to only appreciate how you express yourself.

  13. Oh my goodness, the old pic of you is delightful!!! Glad to see a "wordy" post come from you every so often. I don't have anything to say on the offensiveness of culture appropriation. I just hate that the culture has lost a lot of it's unique flavor through the accessibility of ready-made gothic clothing. I think that must be one reason for my fascination with Death Rock style of late. It seems the least "corrupted" by mainstream assimilation, maintaining it's creative, DIY roots. Actually, I didn't know there was anything called the "Death Rock revival" until yesterday or today when someone maligned it, but I imagine, if there is a revival, its cause can be attributed to similar reasons as are behind my interest.

  14. Haha! No, you didn't offend me at all! Appropriation is one of those really hard to grasp gray areas that I happen to really enjoy studying from a historiographical standpoint. I went from "NO, ALL APPROPRIATION IS BAD" to a much more nuanced stance on the issue, because like I said, I think humans are hardwired for it to a degree. Basically, there are various forms of appropriation which range from unconscious, to intentional but mostly harmless, to out and out bad. It's really up to the individual to decide what they feel comfortable with, but if they opt to go for the bad appropriation, like adopting loaded cultural symbols when they don't have any tie to the culture in question, they better be prepared for shit to get rained down upon them, especially if they're blogging about it. That's why I urge people to do research. If they like the feather headdress from UO, then just run a web search and see what people are saying about it before you buy it. Or at least read the Wikipedia page on it... Hell, just think about it for ten minutes. People who appropriate without knowing what land mines they're stepping on because they're so out of touch with anything beyond their immediate lives, really deserve the shit they get, IMO. I can forgive an honest mistake but have a harder time forgiving outright, lazy ignorance, ESPECIALLY when you barely have to scratch the surface to find plenty of information on a topic like this.

  15. I agree some appropriation is natural, and therefore can't (even shouldn't) be fixed, so it's not a topic that especially interests me for discussion. Sometimes it seems like splitting hairs because the topic, indeed, has so many gray areas. I can best relate to the Native American headdress example through my own lifelong issues with dialect. I, like most people, love the dialects of people from other parts of the world, and, in the sincerest form of flattery, love to imitate them. However, I'm Southern, which means I know all too well from a lifetime of watching TV and movie actors "put on" what is supposed to be my dialect that there can be a fine line between flattery and insult. I am delighted and flattered when someone does well at imitating a Southern dialect, because it means they paid attention and took a genuine interest in an important part of who I am. I am equally offended, however, when someone puts on an exaggerated, stereotypical twang thinking they sound just like us. I never liked those fashion headdresses (if they are the same as I'm thinking) simply because they looked cheap. On the other hand, I have a favorite picture off the web of a Steampunk model wearing an spiky feather headpiece, sort of reinterpreting cyber falls. No Native American headdress research went into it, I'm sure, but at least it's not disposable.

  16. Hullo! I'm Juli, I stalk your blog and I wrote the comment that started the t-shirt flame war on Sal's blog.

    Hot Topic is still very popular in the South, or at least in Texas, and, as much as I hate to shop there, I go because it's the only place to buy goth type clothes that aren't DIY or online. I'm an odd fit so I hate buying anything that I can't try on and I prefer to use my sewing machine for making clothes, not altering them.

    That said, I was born in 84 and missed the Goth movement. I kind of aimlessly wandered into it while being myself and didn't know what a Goth was until someone told me I was one. I spent the next week immersed in google sought articles and websites while saying things like, "OMG! There are other people like me in the world!"

    HT is now more alternative than Goth, btw. That was my point in this post and to thank you for standing up for me on Sal's blog.

  17. My comment became so long I had to draft my own post. But I have to say that your photo from '88 and your black and pink outfit are both gorgeous.

  18. Meagan HendricksonMarch 9, 2012 at 4:58 AM

    So well put! I was born in 1980 and was around the "second movement" of goth (even though I remember the music at 4 that my brother listened too), but I consider it my lifestyle above anything else. I agree about being disheartened with the watered down versions of the fashion style/music/ etc that we see today. I'm not an elitist by any means, but I remember having to WORK to find clothes (like you said), find the music (I didn't use the internet) and actually socialized with real people rather than creating a persona online. I just miss a simpler time when goth was goth and not all these weird sub-genres that I can't keep track of, LOL!

  19. Heads up: I just nominated you for a blogging award! Go to my blog to check it out.

  20. I was born in '82, so my Baby Bat days were in the early 2000's, when Avril Lavigne was all the rage, and I cringed when people said I looked like her because of the heavy black eyeliner and spiked bracelets. I didn't like being compared to a pop singer. She was appropriating elements of the goth and punk cultures, but that didn't make her punk or goth.

    Now, for cultural appropriation, we have to use our good judgement as to what is offensive and what isn't. I find hipsters wearing Native American headdress quite offensive, for all reasons already mentioned, but I won't stop wearing my black cheongsam top because it is a Chinese cultural item of clothing.

    In my previous contract at work, I was the secretary of a very nice lady doctor who looked like she was around 60. She was always wearing very elegant dresses or suits, and one day she was wearing all black and... fishnets stockings. Not torn or anything, of course, but still fishnets. I never thought of it as goth appropriation, because of her age, but it was a nice ice-breaker and conversation starter because I told her how I had similar stockings, and other ladies joined the conversation and it allowed me to find a couple ex-goths among my co-workers.

  21. It does get frustrating, and I always hope the mainstream gets bored and the fashion types move on (then I can raid the clearance racks!). I think the most fun I had hunting for clothes and music was when I was much younger and had no idea something called goth even existed. I find more inspiration from the blogs by individuals using more creative means to assemble their look, whether for the working world or a night out. I'm not saying the people at WGT don't look great, but it's not something I strive for anymore.

    ...and yes, stealing deeply regarded cultural symbols without respect is far worse, just ask the half-Native husband *cue screaming*!

  22. This was an awesome topic. And surprisingly, the comments not what I expected. I really thought I would see more folks complaining about wanting to pimp-slap anyone not goth wearing anything goth-like. I think sometimes I get so used to being judged, that I forget how many very cool, non-judgemental folks still exist. Style-wise, I'm a lot along the lines of an earlier commentor, Sheila, in that I wear what I like,and dress for my mood of the day. Growing up, my sub-culture was hip-hop (and yes, i did breakdance in the 80s), and lowrider/cholo, but the artist in me (or maybe it's the scorpio with a moon in gemini) was always adding in elements of other styles. I always felt that this was what kept me true to myself as an individual rather than always rocking a 24/7 hip-hop look.
    But there were others who had issues with it. Both folks within my subculture not digging that my look sometimes wasn't pure enough, and the various groups whose looks were blended into mine. But I always figured, with all the problems in our world, if someone is going to fixate on my non-goth self wearing goth boots, then that person has some serious issues. I'm a hairdresser and slam poet, my style is supposed to trandscend boundaries.
    If anything, I do have an issue with corporations making thier greedy dollars off of our cultures when they have no damn appreciation for our cultures. Although sadly I do shop a lot through those big chain stores because, well, partly I am a broke bitch and if the price is right, I will buy what I can afford (i do draw the line at wal-mart, will not set foot in there), and I have to shop where I can find big-girl clothes.
    When I see someone who is obviously not part of hip-hop culture dressed in the clothes (whether it's one item or a whole outfit) I take it as a compliment, and I will in passing say to the woman " Damn girl, that hoodie is dope" instead of rolling my eyes.
    Damn, you guys have just inspired me for a new poem topic.

  23. p.s. the young "you" is every bit as fabulous as the "current" you

    lynn brooks

  24. Catherine MerrbachMarch 13, 2012 at 8:00 AM

    I was all fired up to join in the fun, then realized this is exactly what I do when I dress like a hippie. So, maybe I'm not so great either.

  25. I consider myself to be more New Romantic which these days is more like saying "I'm goth-but-not-goth" but whatever the case, I shop at the same places, go to the same club nights, and have the same art up in my living room.
    I'm a huuuge fashion nerd, follow many of the mainstream designers, subscribe to Vogue, etc. When goth is considered "in" (i.e. now a bit thanks to Rooney Mara) I love it because the world is suddenly full of good stuff. Sure, the real things are expensive, but the H&M fast fashion ripoffs are cheap and in 6mos to a year, all the high-end designer pieces will start showing up at your local thrift stores.
    There's no rule saying that you can't buy designer clothes just because they have a designer label either. I bought an amazing pair of Versace for H&M pants last fall because they were obscenely awesome, not because they're Versace. Same story on the pieces I own from Rodarte, Michael Kors, and Proenza Schouler. If you have the funds to drop, you may as well shop Alexander McQueen cause they do clothes that work just as well in a gothic context as they do on a runway or red carpet.
    I can understand not wanting your subculture to be co-opted by the socialites of the world, but fashion is fickle and ephemeral and therefore will be done in 5 minutes. Plus, it's sort of a compliment when the most brilliant design minds in the world are looking to your culture for inspiration. With a sub-culture that's so thick with sub-sub-cultures, somebody is pretty much always going to be "in." Military, Victorian, steam, cyber, whatever, somebody is always going to show up on the runways every season and you might as well take advantage.

  26. ::clappyhands::

    Thank you for posting about this. I always love seeing other Goths talk about this stuff! (And the pink & black PerkyCorpGoth photo is darling.)

  27. I don't see what the big deal is with mainstream borrowing from goths. I've always borrowed trends from the mainstream, putting my own spin on them of course.
    And it tends to make clothing and accessories cheaper when "dark & edgy" is in - a.k.a. almost every Fall. I've never had enough money to shop regularly at Hot Topic and my city's thrift stores lack in what I like - so I love seeing black spiky earrings at Forever 21 for $4.99.

    On the flipside, I agree - I hate people wearing Goth like a costume and then mocking my lifestyle.

    P.S. Great Outfit! <3

  28. Dolores Antolin-MunizApril 14, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Ask me 20+ some odd yrs ago about this subject and idda cringed and gone on some insane nihilistic tangent steeped in snotery (which I am sure you can second, since you knew me back then Trystan haha)… Fast forward to adulthood, humbility and reality and I am all over the co-opt Goth takeover. On numerous levels. I am a grown up with a pension for designer frocks with an edge-it never goes away does it? So I do quite enjoy the fact I can hit a meeting, fancy restaurant etc in a high end black lace dress or a McQueen scarf and its acceptable… While there’s still something in me that cringes over Hot Topic type shops, I think it’s great in the sense that I didn’t have such easy access to darkwear back in the day so the kids are lucky. I think the whole cringing part comes in more so out of me being an old lady “it’s not as good as back when I was a youth! Now get off my lawn!” and just not understanding how it’s evolved into something slightly different. Yeah, deep down it does bother me that Goth is an umbrella term used by soccer moms to describe anyone who wears a lot of black, sure because it takes away so much of what I held near and dear. But I really do enjoy seeing creative kids wearing vintage frocks and new Goth stuff in different ways, esp if they aren’t Goths (but I wouldn’t have way back when!). I have passed on all my old vintage velvet dresses to my non Goth daughter and she looks amazing in them. Ah, as a wise man once said: The times they are a changing… Think it was Aristotle? :-)

  29. I am new to your blog and love it! This discussion got me thinking as I do not identify as goth but have been around "the scene" for many years. When I first started going to shows I got a lot of looks from the goth kids for not dressing the part. But I loved the music and the people. I went on to become very good friends with many people and ended up managing the band Bella Morte for many years. I would be at shows with them all across the country and would still get looks from people because I was not dressed goth. I guess what I am trying to say is that this cuts both ways. I am a huge fan of the music and the scene and for many years did a whole lot to promote it and the bands in it but was sometimes looked down on because I did not dress the part.