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..

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Goth, Subcultures and Middle-Class Rebellion

It seems that there is this belief, mostly amongst non-Goths, that Goth is seen as an identity people take on in order to be visibly rebellious against a middle-class upbringing, and that for Goths past university age that it is a variation on being a "trustafarian". This, I think, misinterprets the motivations of those who become Goth - it is not done as an active rejection or rebellion of anything, simply as the enjoyment of music, fashion and art outside the mainstream. It has become a subculture, but it is not a counterculture in the way of Punk or Hippie - Goth is more concerned with arts than politics, especially music. 

In seeking artistic fulfilment, whether musical, fashion-related, visual, or otherwise, in taboo areas such as lyric content about death, dark romance and the occult or in macabre art or in clothes, accessories and a personal appearance that are easily identifiable as different from the mainstream, the mainstream then perceives Goths engaged in an active rebellion against them, rather than simply preferring something else. As a large proportion of contemporary Goths come from a middle-class background, Goth has become viewed as something done by disaffected middle-class youths trying to assert independence and difference from their middle-class upbringings. Goth, though, is not a middle-class phenomena, it is a cross-class phenomena, and one that grew out of Punk, a subculture once seen as working-class. 

I think part of the reason that Goths tend to be seen as middle-class pseudo-rebels is the fact that unlike other subcultures, Goth is not a counterculture, and therefore not incompatible with dominant western culture (not having talked to any goths in the Middle East, Africa or the Far East, or been there myself I cannot comment on their experiences) because while it does tend to be more tolerant towards things such as having a radically different appearance, being interested in non-mainstream and occult spirituality, and not adhering to gender norms, and in looking for beauty in places otherwise considered taboo, it does not have a political or cultural group of accepted beliefs. Whether a person holds beliefs counter to those upheld by the mainstream, or more radical than those of the mainstream or even in accordance is up to the individual, and not related to subcultural affiliation. 

One of the ways that Goth is different to the mainstream in terms of values is the importance of self-made cultural signifiers over bought cultural signifiers - Goths tend to value someone sewing their own bustle-skirts and fancy jackets over them being bought, and while judgement may be passed on the quality of the final product by some, the desire to create for oneself will be lauded, not just for the skill required, but because creating emancipates one from having to buy into mass-produced concepts and allows for originality and a heightened level of freedom of expression bound only by courage and skill. Making one's own clothes has often been mocked as either being a forced condition of poverty (strange in a country where it is cheaper to get clothes from a discount retailer such as Primark or from a charity shop than it is to buy materials to make clothes, although this does not necessarily stand for alternative clothes - it is cheaper to buy a t-shirt than to make one, it is cheaper to make a bustle gown than to buy one) or an attempt to be deliberately countercultural - i.e simply doing so because the mainstream isn't - rather than simply as a way to have clothes that fit correctly and look exactly the way the wearer intends, or at least hopefully rather close to that vision. 

Goths may also have a tendency to end up socio-economically as middle class, regardless of their backgrounds, because there is tendency for us to be more intellectually or academically inclined. I was certainly a bookish, academic sort at school, the sort that was skipped a year and went to literature and chess clubs as well as pursuing various musical interests, despite having survived childhood abuse and coming from a low-income single-parent household, and many of my Goth friends are either in academia as a career or have gone through higher education in the more intellectually challenging fields, and some of those despite coming from backgrounds that could be considered "challenging" or "disadvantaged" and others from a rather varied selection of backgrounds, but my personal experiences do not speak for all. While the economy is struggling in my country at least, it still stands that having a degree or two in a subject that is applicable to specialist industries is certainly useful in terms of career prospects and thus socio-economic status. Goths also tend to have a certain level of self-determination which gives them the courage to defy convention enough to wear alternative clothes or listen to non-mainstream music, but also gives them a level of ambition and direction. 

Also, some of the more visible Goths, and thus the ones that are noticed by non-Goths and the mainstream, are going to be the ones with the more elaborate or polished appearances, and terms of items such as jewellery, boots and unusual clothing, if bought these can be rather expensive, unaffordable to the poor or working class without very careful saving. Also, to the outside, those who have self-made outfits that are highly elaborate and have considerable skill in their creation maybe assumed to have bought them simply because it is perceived that ordinary people simply don't have the skill to make clothes and accessories like that any more, and that these are antiquated crafts lost to history. When non-Goths ask me about items I have made myself, or even modified, there is a continual reaction of shock that I really did make something myself, that it wasn't produced in a factory or produced in a factory the way it now is. Goths tend to place higher value on something being aesthetically pleasing than expensive, and, as mentioned before, on crafting and creating for oneself, so outfits that look expensive may be, but at the same time, they may be made from recycled charity shop clothes on a budget sewing machine (at least mine are). 

Some Goths do hold an antagonism towards the mainstream, at least partly because Goths do come on the receiving end of unpleasantness from non-Goths, and this is then perceived as representative of the mainstream attitude towards Goths, although that attitude actually varies widely dependent on location and current trends, and of course, is incredibly diverse on an individual level. There are those amongst the Goth subculture that do hold views not really in accordance with the mainstream (or the local mainstream) and who do have views critical of modern western society (I certainly do) and who use the subculture as a vessel for their countercultural beliefs. There are also those who do see Goth as a vehicle for youthful rebellion, or a way to assert their identity as separate from that of those around them, or simply to antagonise their parents and things they see as "the establishment". None of these facets, though, is representative of the subculture as a whole, and can even be seen as an appropriation of the subculture for a personal agenda (and in the case of those appropriating the subculture for antagonistic shock value, or for garnering attention, doing so in a damaging and negative way). 

I think there is also an assumption that in order to have the time to actually ponder concerns like the one I am writing about, or to "indulge" in the arts or music, that one must be at least middle class-because it is assumed that otherwise I would be too busy trying to make a living. At one point I was at college, working in a supermarket, and going to evening classes - I wrote observational poetry in the quiet moments in the supermarket, on the back of discarded receipts. While an active pursuit of the arts, like learning a musical instrument from a teacher, or going to concerts and the sorts of exhibitions where you have to pay, does require financial resources, it is possible to be personally involved and interested in the arts with little in the way of resources. I taught myself to play piano, partly because I could not afford a tutor, and yes, it took a long time, and yes, my technique is highly unorthodox (and probably self-defeating on occasion) but I can now play things with relative competency and musicality, I draw on cheap office paper with the biros that are given away free in banks or with catalogues, I make and modify my fashion out of things I bought in charity shops. A passion for creativity may be bracketed in terms of its final form by resources and circumstance and opportunity, but not in its existence. Goth, as a subculture focused on artistic expression, especially music, is therefore bracketed only in form by resources, not in vision, passion or inclusion. Passion and determination can to a certain degree prevail over circumstance and lack of opportunity.  

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for this insightful post. All in all, I tend to agree that Goth is more about art and creativity than politics; but at the same time, it does seem that most Goths agree on some basic issues. The difference is that these general agreements are not codified into the subculture.

    That said, I do think there are some similarities between Goth and other subcultures. For example, both Goths and hippies stand out in contrast to the mainstream culture; and although the hippies tend to be somewhat more political, they too have always enjoyed their own music, art and literature.

    I tend to view tribal Goths as a missing link between the two. Their style of dress is often colorful and in my opinion, resembles hippie and neo-hippie fashion while maintaining certain Goth attributes such as piercings and tattoos. I sometimes wonder with which subculture they most identify. If I ever get to know any of them on a personal basis maybe I'll ask.

    Where I live there's a certain amount of interaction between the Goths, hippies and even those left over from our once thriving punk scene. This is especially evident in the realm of the local art scene.

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    1. I'm not entirely sure what political issues garner a majority consensus, although that could be quite dependent on location. I used to hang around with Goths in the Oxfordshire area, and maybe because of the presence of the universities, they were quite diverse, but generally quite well informed. I would say that there tends to be a lean to the left, but maybe that's because more conservative attitudes generally aren't open to the darker creative aspects of Goth, although there are always exceptions, and that with Goth having Punk roots, it does attract those with a similar mindset. I agree with you in saying that Goth does not codify any political leanings into its subculture, which I think is positive as it allows people of various political stances to enjoy the subculture, and to bring something to it.

      Yes, it is important to recognise that even subcultures that are known for their political leanings do have their own music, art, literature and fashion - which is what differentiates them from being a political movement and makes them a subculture - and even Hippies, while pretty much always liberal, in the broad sense of the term, adhere to a variety of ecologically based politics, communist-inspired politics, socialist-inspired politics, anarchism-inspired politics, etc. and I would say there are probably as many types of Hippie political beliefs as there are Hippies! :P

      I haven't met many Tribal Goths. I am an ex-Hippie/ex-bohemian daughter of a (now ageing) hippie, and I must say it has definitely had an impact on how I think. I guess the Tribal Goths are the missing link - they are where the two subcultures overlap. People tend to assume that Hippies and Goths are somehow opposites, because Hippies are known for the brightly coloured "flowers and rainbows" aesthetic and Goths for the all black "skulls and shadows" aesthetic, but what people forget is that it is possible to like both and they aren't mutually exclusive, just difficult to combine simultaneously.

      Where I live the only shop selling Goth things is the shop that primarily caters to the Hippie and Bohemian alternatives!

      Art is a perfect place for the subcultural to mix - even if they don't share a preferred aesthetic, their mutual creative natures give them common ground.

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  2. As to the expensive clothes -- most Goths I know have one or two "nice" (expensive) clothing items then everything else is either thrift store or homemade, and just looks more dressy when paired with the, say, $250 corset.

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    1. I agree with this and I love how insightful it is. And I DIY my clothes pretty a lot which I tend to add studs from my old studded belt, painting, rips or safety pins (as a aesthetic/art purpose) and band badges (bought or make my own) or anything that floats my boat and if I have any ideas running around in my brain that motivates me to add more inspirations, artistic elements, aesthetics, fashion sense and reflection to my tastes or mood. Otherwise I have no ideas to start another project on DIY.

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    2. It usually is the corsets and boots that cost - I've got one that would have been about £100 if I hadn't bought it in a half-price sale, and things like Fluevogs and New Rocks are really not cheap, but things like that are items I have purchased carefully, and with a lot of even more careful saving first - they are not bought on a whim, they are bought as fashion investments that I will wear until they eventually fall apart decades from now if they do ever fall apart, and which I will mend, repair and otherwise extended in lifespan as necessary. One of the things about Goth as a style is that it does not change rapidly in the manner of mainstream fashion, so one does not have to be concerned with items becoming "out of date".

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    3. And yes, I am one of those goths with a small handful of expensive investment pieces, and a large amount of cheap stuff that was either charity shop, cheap, on sale, or made/modified by myself.

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  3. I agree with this and I love how insightful it is. And I DIY my clothes pretty a lot which I tend to add studs from my old studded belt, painting, rips or safety pins (as a aesthetic/art purpose) and band badges (bought or make my own) or anything that floats my boat and if I have any ideas running around in my brain that motivates me to add more inspirations, artistic elements, aesthetics, fashion sense and reflection to my tastes or mood. Otherwise I have no ideas to start another project on DIY.

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    1. You sound like you are very Punk/Deathrock/Trad Goth :) I tend to dress that way for clubbing, and putting studs on things and stabbing/ripping/cutting/clawing my tights to oblivion is lots of fun :) I take my frustrations out on old pairs of tights and turn them into shredded arm warmers.

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  4. I disagree with your comment that "goth" is not a phenomenon of people rebelling against their middle class upbringing. Where I grew up, EVERY "goth" grew up in a mainstream suburban with YUPPIE parents. I mean EVERY single goth kid except for the few who were on trust funds.

    These "goths" were people with normal and generally happy childhoods. They grew up in the 'burbs, their parents fed them good food, made sure they had nice clothes, a car, got into a good college, etc. At some point in their lives, they saw the Cure on MTV or something and started dressing like they were part of the band.

    The freaks, the people who truly did not fit in and who were made to know it, were the kids from impoverished backgrounds, either from lack of money or from abuse. Those were the kids who did not have the option or the ability to fit into mainstream society because of their birth circumstances.

    All of your "goths" are nothing but dress-up goths pretending every day is Halloween. If you want to see people who are truly gothic (not the extinct central European tribe known as Goths) look at the people Faulkner, Flannery O'Conner, or Poe wrote about.

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