My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Subcultural Appropriation

When Goth Gets Appropriated

Cultural appropriation is usually talked about in the context of mainstream Western culture appropriating elements of other cultures, and using them as shallow exoticism or as a commercialised trend with no reverence or respect to their original context, and I wrote about it here. Goth, while it certainly isn't liked by the mainstream, and does receive a lot of mistreatment, spanning things like the murder of Sophie Lancaster and the attribution of school shootings to a Goth influence, to the regular street harassment of those who dress differently in public and bullying of children and some employers not wanting to hire Goths, this is not on the same scale as racism nor homophobia (although I do think murdering someone on the basis of what subculture they belong to is equally evil to murdering someone on the basis of what culture they belong to). 

Goth is a subculture, and the prejudice against it is more similar to religious intolerance in so much that belonging to a subculture or a religion is choice, whereas what race or sexual orientation you are is an inherent trait. Goth, to many of us (but not all), is quite a central aspect of our life, and perhaps defines as much of our lives as our national culture might, or more, in the same way religion can. I certainly see parallels between how my religion and my subculture impact my life. 

Also, whereas cultural appropriation is linked to the colonial past of Western countries, and therefore to the atrocities committed, while most Goths will account to having been harassed, faced prejudice and possibly faced beatings and violence for their differences, most of us, as Goths (not as other facets of our identities, such as Goths of colour, or transgender Goths) are not, have not, and will not be the target of institutionalised attempts at eradication or enslavement (except perhaps in Russia, where the government HAS put in place sanctions against what has been perceived as dangerous youth movements). 

Anyway, every time Goth-influenced fashion becomes popular in the mainstream, there are cries of "hey, but that's OURS" and contradictory mixture of offence at the commercialisation and glee at the availability of Goth-suitable fashion. I felt like dissecting that a bit.

⚜ Four Reasons Goth-Influenced Style Becoming Trendy Bothers Me

Firstly when Goth influenced fashion becomes trendy, it can make it difficult to visually tell a Goth from someone trying to follow a tend. Of course, this can be clarified by talking to them. Goths  in areas where there are not many other Goths can feel a bit disappointed when in their search for kindred spirits with similar interests they encounter what looks like promising signs of a like-minded individual, only to find that this person has temporarily and shallowly co-opted the Goth aesthetic as part of an 'edgy' trend. It also  becomes annoying if the Goth-as-a-trend-types then behave in a way that isn't appropriate in public (as unfortunately some do) and then it reflects badly on the Goth community because it's not just Goths who can't tell them apart, but outsiders.

Secondly it is infuriating to see the very same people who have insulted you in public for your fashion choices suddenly appropriate your style choices, and they themselves receive little negative attention for it because they are not really associated with the Gothic subculture (and all the negative stereotypes associated with it), they are just following a trend, it's just fashion, nothing deeper. Now, I don't want to tar all hipsters and trendy people as mockers of Goths, because that just isn't the case (some of my friends are hipsters!); being mainstream, trendy or even a hipster does not make one automatically hate Goths or be rude to them, but I have seen literally the same people who once mocked me now wearing studded leather jackets, faux-Doc Marten's and unnatural hair-colours and leggings with inverted crosses on them because this is all trendy now. 

Thirdly people are wearing things that were dear to us without the same appreciation we hold for them. I have met teenagers wearing Bauhaus t-shirts who are barely aware that the band exists, but have never listened to the music (and probably have no idea that it is also an architectural style...) and probably never will (even though I did say they were good and that they should have a listen as they might like them; maybe I am being cynical and they went home and looked them up on iTunes or something.) - if I see someone wearing a band t-shirt, I'd like to think that they like the band, and aren't just wearing the t-shirt because it was black and they thought the design looked cool. 

Fourthly, the Goth aesthetic is often used as visual code for 'edgy' and 'transgressive' - we are certainly different, but I think this plays on some of the negative stereotypes of Goth - if Goths were seen as just other people with different tastes instead of rebellious, scary, potentially violent, obsessed with death, depressed, etc, would using the Goth aesthetic as a visual code for 'edgy' still work? Probably not. 

⚜ Four Good Things About Goth-Influenced Style Being Popular

Firstly, the availability of Goth-friendly items in mainstream stores suddenly sky-rockets. Yes, there will be a lot of cheap fake leather and poorly-attached studs in the shops at the moment, but the better shops will sell medium quality items at prices still less than those of big Goth brands like Raven, and while upmarket shops like Marks & Spencer will carry items that are at their usual upmarket price ranges, they are also likely to be rather nice. A good section of my wardrobe has come from Marks & Spencer via charity shops and eBay, from collections when black velvet, lace and Victoriana have all been fashionable. Everything that is in fashion right now will go out of fashion again soon, and will turn up in charity shops as their current owners change to the latest trend. 

Secondly, it allows those who want to experiment with the aesthetic, but are not ready to commit, to wear clothes they like with less likelihood of being taunted for it. Nobody need suspect that they are not just following the trends if they don't tell anyone and don't take it to the point where it is obvious that they are committed to the subculture. There will also be those who do take it up as part of the trend, but decide that when the trends change again that they will in fact stick with this one, and stumble across something they like via the trend. There will be those who actually look into what the real Goth subculture and aesthetic is about, and perhaps discover something they come to love. 

Thirdly, people may be less likely to judge someone based on their aesthetic choices, both in terms of fashion, and in terms of the music and the rest of the subculture, if they have dabbled on the fringes themselves and found that it did not drag them to Hell or turn them into psychopathic murderers, or make them all depressed - it may, for a few, grant them just enough insight to become more accepting people. Perhaps someone will mistake them for a Goth, and call them an insult in the street, and they will realise how much that insult hurt and never do that to someone themselves. Perhaps it may not change the minds of many, but even if a handful of people come to have a better opinion of Goth, then that is a good thing. 

Fourthly, every now and again mainstream fashion will come out with a Goth-inspired idea that is actually quite good and has not been done much within the subculture, or which has been done, but was not very popular, and which suddenly gets much more exposure. I have seen a lot of all-lace shirts within Goth, but shirts with lace backs and opaque fronts seem to have become quite popular with the Nu-Goth and Goth-inspired hipsters, and I had not seen many of them before, the same with collar-pins - I had seen them within Visual Kei and Rockabilly fashion, but not much amongst Goth, and now I see studs and spikes for collars with chains between them for sale in mainstream accessory shops. Another trend is detachable collars - originally in more 'hipster' styles such as beading, pastel sequins and suchlike, and are now available with things like faux-fur and studs. 


Obviously, not everyone who wears trendy clothes does so ONLY to be trendy, and it is unfair to judge someone on sight, and to infer from what they wear that they are wearing them for the wrong reasons. There will be quite a few people who are actually wearing trendy items because they actually genuinely like the item - they may be aesthetic butterflies who do not want to commit to one aesthetic, but they may still genuinely wearing a studded leather jacket because they like leather and studs, and think it looks good, and not to appear 'edgy' or shallowly follow a trend, and they may have never mocked a Goth person in their life and have an accepting and live-and-let-live attitude. Goth itself is about doing things because you genuinely like them, so there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with mainstream people wearing Goth-inspired or Goth items without fully committing to the subculture if they are wearing them out of an appreciation of the item. 

Also, in the end, it is but fashion, clothes, and yes, while our subculture means a lot to us, and the hypocrisy of those who would mock us with one hand and then take their styling tips from us with the other is galling, it does not do any material harm - it is not the same as say, throwing stones at someone or denying someone a job because of their subcultural affiliation. There needs to be some level of perspective. The mainstream fashion industry commercialising our fashion and aesthetic does not stop us from enjoying our own subculture, it does in no way prevent us from still seeing a Bauhaus t-shirt as a way to appreciate the band or from studding our leather jackets ourselves, it just blurs the significance of things to those on the outside. 

I would not judge someone else on what they are wearing, nor presume them to have any of the above motivations on the sole basis of their clothes. That is just as silly as assuming that all Goths look the way we do to actively rebel. I would also not tell anyone what they can and cannot wear. If you live in a country where there are no laws restricting your fashion choices, then you are free to wear what you like, and the same freedom that allows Goths to wear Goth clothes extends to non-Goths wearing Goth clothes. 

As always, I recommend never approaching others with pre-concieved notions of what they might be like before knowing them, and being polite even with those whom you disagree with, and that extends to people who are wearing your favourite band t-shirt but don't know who, say, Siouxsie and the Banshees, actually are.

⚜ Goth Hallowe'en 'Costumes'
We are a subculture, not a costume. It is not acceptable to dress up as a terrorist Muslim, it is not acceptable to dress up as a 'Squaw' (that word, by the way, is an insult to Native North American women) and it is not acceptable to dress up as a Chinese person with taped eyes and a coolie hat because these are all reducing groups of people to flat and sexualised or negative stereotypes and perpetuating those stereotypes. 'Goth' costumes often present a sexualised (sexy-fied) stereotype of Goth, and one that errs on the 'Goths are people who think they are vampires' and 'Goths are slutty and into kinky sex' stereotypes a bit too much for comfort. There are also those who, like those who wear the racial stereotype costumes, wear them to mock those stereotypes, people who wear Goth costumes in a way that deliberately mock what they think Goths are. THAT really annoys me. 

I live the Goth subculture 24 hours a day; even my dreams run to the same aesthetic as everything else I do, even my work clothes err on the Gothic. I have Joy Division and Dead Can Dance on my headphones when I sit on the bus. I have spider-web loo-roll and black plates. To say I am passionate about my subculture is a bit of an understatement, and to know people use Hallowe'en as an excuse to mock us is... well irritating to say the least. Especially when Hallowe'en is often quite dear to Goths. 

Now, wearing a Goth outfit at Halloween isn't inherently inappropriate. I've actually helped a friend put together a proper Goth outfit at Halloween, but it consisted of clothes that would actually be considered Goth (from her wardrobe and mine) rather than a tacky and cheaply-made, store-bought costume, and she wore Goth makeup rather than white and black face-paint. Her intention was not to mock Goths, her outfit was based on what is authentically Goth in consultation with a Goth, and she wore her outfit as an opportunity to explore a different way of looking for a night. Yes, the idea that it can still be considered a 'costume' could still be grating to some, as to her it was something different to wear for a night and not a form of expressing her permanent inner self and subcultural affiliation, but I don't think that this was not done in any  malevolence and what she wore was actually Goth and not a tawdry parody of Goth.


At some point I will write some musings about Goth and teenage rebellion, and where the lines between exploring identity and using Goth as a tool for shock value get blurred. 

14 comments:

  1. This is very well put.
    I am very pleased to see you touched on the subject of 'aesthetic butterflies' (which is an ingenious term!); I have many friends that I would consider such. They're very harmless people who just enjoy all kinds of clothes; I see no harm in it.

    I'm generally very stoic-- I live by the philosophy of live and let live =P
    But deliberate and conscience hypocrisy seem to bring out the irritation in me. It doesn't compute when a person who has outwardly bullied me for my choices, suddenly praise me for them years later. Usually I can let it go if it ends there, but when they adamantly deny the past and convince others that the events were all in my head... then I find it hard to hold back.

    Thank you for writing this piece!

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    1. I don't see anything wrong with being an aesthetic butterfly. It took me a while to commit to one subculture, and to be perfectly honest, I don't think that one necessarily has to chose a single subculture or aesthetic if there's a genuine interest in several. I think a lot of Goth-hybrid styles (cybergoth, Gothic Lolita, etc.) have come from people with a foot in more than one community, and I like how new things keep evolving out of the general "alternative" mix :)

      The behaviour you describe certainly comes over as obnoxious. Perhaps the person feels guilty about what they did and does not want to accept those actions as part of who they are now, but it seems like an apology would be in better order, and denying it only furthering the sense of insult.

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  2. I'd love to give this a standing ovation! But, whereas, I am alone at work, it wouldn't be the same.

    Thank you very much for this well written message. I hope many others read it and find it as brilliant as I do

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  3. Thank you for taking the time to write this thoughtful article.

    Although I understand both the advantages and disadvantages of the commercialization of our aesthetic, I really don't like seeing it mainstreamed. Like you, I believe it would be nice if people understood the reasoning behind a certain look rather than just dressing some way because it's this month's latest trend.

    That said, I find that so-called hipsters, including those who are non Goth, tend to dress in ways that reflect their ideals--the people they really are anyway. Whenever I see one of these folks utilizing a bit of Goth aesthetic I feel that it's genuine. What these people do is totally fine with me.

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    1. As long as something is genuine, I don't mind it. It is the trend-hopping appropriation of things (and in parallel to the appropriation of Goth, the appropriation of occult and Neo-Pagan symbolism), that bothers me.

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  4. You have made some good points about this, I was going to make a similar, though less in-depth, post about this very subject. The one thing that I really agree with you on is that it is irritating to see people who would have made fun of my appearance wearing the EXACT same thing now that it is trendy. This is frustrating, but I have chosen to not take fashion so seriously in my life. I am secure in myself and I know that I belong to the subculture regardless of what type of clothing I have on my body at any given time. I have decided to say to myself, "They're just CLOTHES." If people want to wear a Bauhaus shirt even though they have no idea what it is, then oh well. If you wear your Bauhaus shirt proudly because you are a big fan, great, but I don't think that it's that big of a deal in the end. Trends come and go and if you are secure in yourself it shouldn't matter to you what other people choose to wear. I just feel that other people's fashion choices are none of my business and my choices are none of anybody else's.

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    1. I don't really have a problem with people wearing things, it's just when it communicates something inaccurate about the person, it can make things awkward. Goth fashion used to be a signifier that someone else in the sea of normality shared similar values and tastes to you, at least partially, and alleviated that sense of alienation that can occur, but now it is less guaranteed that it's a signifier of anything.

      My biggest problem is with those who would literally have mocked me a few years ago and now are jumping on the pseudo-Gothic bandwaggon.

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  5. It's been a year since you've written this, but I had to comment, because this article is SO validating. Thank you for taking the time to write this well-articulated, but also non-judgmental, piece.

    x

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    1. Feel free to comment years after I post something! I still read my posts and reply :)

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  6. I was searching for "subcultural appropriation" on google as I was wondering if the subject was talked about, as it has been in my head for quite a while. I found your blog and read this entry. I loved it, I don't think I could have put it better :)

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    1. Good to know I appear on Google :) I'm not the only person who gets annoyed when the mainstream appropriates Goth, but I'm probably one of the few who has spoken about it in the new language of the contemporary social justice movement (although as it can get quite... self-contradictory and extremist, it is a movement whose principles I agree with, but not always its practices). This is not a new thing to have happened to our subculture; it is an issue and double-edged sword that resurfaces about once a decade. I think this time 'round it has been a more... prolonged adoption, and I am starting to wonder if it actually signifies a mainstream adoption of a few Gothic values.

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  7. Goth appropriates many elements of christianity such as the crosses, punk or the neo-baroque style. Never forget that.

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    1. Goth can trace its lineage from both of those things - punk is Goth's direct subcultural ancestor; it was an outgrowth of Punk as 'positive punk' or 'post-punk', and many of the original "Goth" musicians like The Damned or Siouxsie and the Banshees regarded themselves as punks - Goth is not an appropriation of punk, it is an evolution and continuation of punk.

      The use of Christian symbols in Goth is a complex matter. It is appropriation when it is being taken from it context by a group outside that context, and Goth is a group with a very complex relationship to the context the symbolism and iconography comes from. Some if it can be traced through the legacy of Gothic architecture - originally ecclesiastical although it was also used in castles such as Rait and Haverford west - and how those buildings became the settings for Gothic novels, hence the term 'Gothic' becoming used for the supernatural. Christianity also has a huge part in the parent culture to which Goth is the sub-culture. Even though England (where Goth originated) is now a mixture of religions, and Christianity is held by just under half the population, for centuries it was pretty much the whole population - Goth has also mostly thrived in countries with a strong link to Christianity in their culture - America, various countries in Europe, Brazil, with Japan being a notable exception - and therefore the iconography of those parent cultures, and especially the religious and spiritual aspects of those parent cultures are heavily coloured by Christianity. However, this is not the only approach to Christian symbols taken by members of the Goth subculture, and I think where Christian iconography is worn in an ironic manner, or in a deliberately sacreligious manner, then it can cross over into appropriation and even misappropriation.

      For the most part, however, anachronistic references within Goth are a sub-culture focusing on historical aspects of its own parent culture, rather than appropriating aspects of a different culture.

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