Goth subculture originated in the early 1980s in the United Kingdom as an offshoot of the post-punk musical genre, later known as gothic rock or Goth-rock.
The subculture’s visual revolves around aesthetics from 19th-century fiction and horror films and stylistic elements from Romanticism, Medieval, Edwardian, and Victorian eras.
The Origin of Goth Subculture
As the Goths and Visigoths – Germanic tribes – played a significant role in the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the term ‘Gothic’ appears in Italian literature of the Renaissance period (late 15th to early 17th century).
The Italian scribes mention the tribes’s visuals in the emergence of medieval Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries AD and the Gothic architecture and art of the early 12th century.
The word Goth was used in a derogatory way to describe barbaric, unrefined, and ugly forms of style and aesthetic patterns.
Later, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the term Goth was used in fiction literature to depict supernatural and mysterious characters living in large, frightening old buildings.
Gothic literature combined romance and dark visuals to depict ruinous castles, gloomy churchyards, and claustrophobic monasteries where supernatural characters live a life of mystery, suspense, and horror.
The unique style of architecture – also known as French Work – employs pointed arches, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and shadows to create a sense of grandeur and mystery.
Over time, artists, architects, writers, and filmmakers used Gothic aesthetics, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the term Gothic was used to describe a particular type of music.
The first usage of the term Goth in the context of music is credited to John Stickney’s article published in a student-run newspaper, ‘The Williams Record,’ on 24th of October, 1967.
Fans of the Goth music genre valued free thinking, freedom of expression, and a conspicuously dark, rebellious, and mysterious fashion look.
During the 80s, teenagers adopted the Goth dressing style to showcase belonging to a movement with a distinct aesthetic, music, ideology, and social scene.
The Gothic dressing style of the 80s emerged in response to the 80s disco fashion style as a dark flip-side to the rise of new wave pop media and celebs.
Darker, subdued, and rebellious presentations were valued, where extravagance, indulgence, and vibrancy allowed Goths to be distinguished from the mainstream culture.
Who Are the Goths?
Historically, Goths or Visigoths were Germanic tribes who played a significant role in the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of medieval Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries.
In a more modern context, Goths are followers of the Goth music genre that emerged in the late 70s and early 80s who find beauty in dark, eerie, mysterious fashion, aesthetics, art, and literature.
What Do Goths Value?
Goths find beauty in things most people consider dark and mysterious and take pride in being and looking different than the general public and mainstream culture.
Goths value free thinking, self-expression and individualism, tolerance for sexual and religious diversity, and creativity.
Goths dislike social conservatism and have a dark sense of humor and a mild tendency towards cynicism.
1. Individualism and Self-expression
Goths value individuality and reject conformity to mainstream ideas and ideals.
Goths do things not because it’s what’s trending in the “mainstream” but because that’s what they want to do.
Goths also value self-expression and are not afraid to stand out from the crowd.
2. Art and Creativity
Goths possess above-average intelligence and are highly literate and creative.
Goths are drawn to artistic pursuits, such as writing, painting, music, or crafting.
3. Free Thinking and Defying Norms
Goths are free thinkers and reject dogma and social conservatism.
Goths reject traditional values and social norms, particularly gender roles, sexuality, and religion.
Taboo subjects in ‘normal’ society are discussed and debated among goths, such as death, religion, magick, and mysticism.
4. Dark Sense of Humor
The gothic sense of humor is highly developed and leans toward satirical and black comedy.
Goths love jokes around the human condition, religious themes, and one’s reason to exist and live.
5. Open-Mindedness and Tolerance for Diversity
Tolerance is one of the most important aspects of being Goth.
Goths accept people from all walks of life, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or cultural background.
6. Knowledge and Education
Unlike the mainstream perception, Goths are usually well-read and have a vast vocabulary.
Apart from being a sinister group of social misfits, Goths value university education and highbrow culture.
Knowing about the Goth subculture is also one of the essential aspects of being accepted as a goth.
Although Goths defy social norms and value freedom of expression and individuality, they have no pronounced political messages or cries for social activism.
Goth ideology is based far more on art and aesthetics than ethics or politics.
8. Celebrating Sexuality
Sexual empowerment is an important part of the goth experience.
Goths celebrate active sexuality and resist mainstream notions of gender roles and sexuality stereotypes, which creates “gender egalitarianism” within the scene.
For example, women can freely engage in sexual play with multiple partners without suffering the stigma associated with such behavior and are even seen as solid feminine characters.
Similarly, men dress up in an androgynous way, wearing makeup and skirts to “enhance masculinity” and facilitate traditional heterosexual courting roles.
9. Mood and Self-dramatization
As a result of the Goths’ love for romanticism and neoromanticism, they put overwhelming importance on mood.
As a result, Goths could be seen as theatrical or self-dramatic.
The Level of “Gothness”
Goths’ emphasis on individualism and self-expression can lead to conflicts within the subculture, as different subgenres or individuals may have different opinions on what constitutes “true” goth.
As such, Goths raise the issue of to what degree individuals are indeed members of the goth subculture.
On one end of the spectrum is the “Uber Goth,” those who have reached a level of gothiness above what one would suspect a living human capable of (particularly in paleness!).
Also, the term “Batcavers,” the members of the Batcave club launched in London in 1982 as a central gathering point for Goths, is used to describe the old-school goths.
On the other end of the spectrum are the “baby bats,” a term for people new to the scene, and “poseurs,” goth wannabes, usually young kids going through a goth phase who do not hold to goth sensibilities but want to be part of the goth crowd.
Also, “mall goth” describes a teen who dresses in a Goth style and spends time in malls with a Hot Topic store but does not know much about the Goth subculture or its music, thus making them a poseur.
Between these two extremes, Goths are varied in musical and visual interest, from Industrial to Classical music and back, and lack of interest in vampires or death.
Also, there is a lot of confusion about what is Goth and what is not, especially among outsiders.
For example, mainstream media considers Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails as Gothic bands (they’re not) and Sisters of Mercy and Dead Can Dance as punk (but they’re goth).
What Are the Different Types of Goths
There’s an ongoing debate on what can be considered Goth.
The internet has given birth to several variations of Goth music and dressing styles, discarded by the subculture’s OG’s who do not consider them part of the subculture.
Some variations are formed according to the level of Gothness, participation in specific activities, or interest in certain types of fashion, music, and art.
Some are based only on the Gothic aesthetic and have little connection with the music genre of the 80s.
Other subgroups are created at the convergence of Goth with other genres.
Subcultures Related to Goth
Several subcultures are close to the Goth regarding music, art, aesthetics, ideology, and dressing style.
- Rivet Heads
- Visual Kei
- Dark Mori
Controversies Around Goths
The dark music with dark lyrics and a dark, cynical sense of humor characteristic of the Goth scene is exploited for commercial purposes, used as a scapegoat, and misunderstood by the mainstream, blaming the Goth subculture for school shootings, self-harming practices, and attempted suicides by teenagers.
Also, the interest in fetish fashion and clubs associated with the modern Goth culture is seen as Satanism or atheism and demonized by right-wing political/religious organizations like the Parents’ American Religious Organizations Defending Youth.
However, the association has more to do with adherents’ tolerance of alternative lifestyles than any endorsement of any particular set of values.
The Elements of Goth Aesthetic
Goth aesthetic is built around 80s post-punk fashion, imagery of Medival tribes, Victorian-era dressing style, depictions of 19th-century fiction, and Horror movie visuals.
Inspired by Gothic architecture and cathedrals, spiritual and religious imagery are common elements in the Gothic aesthetic.
In Gothic literature, dark imagery such as ruinous castles, gloomy churchyards, and claustrophobic monasteries are associated with the Goth aesthetic.
Supernatural figures such as demons, vampires, ghosts, and monsters are a big part of the aesthetic.
The most common Goth colors are black, red, blue, purple, green, gold, pink, silver, and white.
The Goth Way of Dressing
In line with the subculture’s origin, the early Goth fashion style draws from the rock music scenes in the 70s and early 80s, including punk, new wave, and New Romantic.
The classic dressing style of the early Goths in the 1980s is known as Trad-goth.
Mainly represented by women, it was characterized by new wave hairstyles, both long and short, partly shaved and teased, and 80s street-compliant clothing.
It included black frill blouses, midi dresses or tea-length skirts, floral lace tights, Dr. Martens, spike heels or pumps, and pointed-toe buckle boots or winklepickers.
Also, the clothing was supplemented with accessories such as silver bracelets, chokers, and bib necklaces.
Today, Goth dressing styles borrow aesthetics from the Victorian, Edwardian, and Belle Époque eras of the 18th and 19th centuries.
For example, the “Victorian cult of mourning” of the 18th century, which mandated head-to-toe black, is a source of inspiration for the members of the Goth subculture to create an image of the femme fatale and the vamp.
Goth fashion is also influenced by horror fiction themes such as crucifixes, bats, vampires, and religious imagery such as pagan and occult.
For example, vampire film characters reinforced the enthusiasm among goth males for whitened faces, long dark hair, and shades.
Over the years, the Gothic fashion style has also taken elements from other genres, such as steampunk, cyberpunk, rave, fetish wear, and cosplay.
Goth Style Clothing and Accessories
- Black velvets
- Black midi dresses
- Tea-length skirts
- Lace tights
- Leather coats tinged with scarlet or purple
- Black frill blouses
- Dr. Marten’s combat boots
- Spike heels or pumps
- Pointed-toe buckle boots or winklepickers
- Laced corsets
- Leather or lace gloves
- Precarious stilettos
- Religious or occult silver jewelry
Goth Hair and Makeup
- Heavy eye makeup
- Dark eyeliner
- Black fingernail polish
- Voluminous or shaved hairstyles (both long and short)
What is Haute Goth?
“Haute Goth” is the term used to describe the high fashion scene that uses Goth as the primary source of inspiration for runway collections.
Goth Fashion Designers and Clothing Brands
- Alexander McQueen
- Anna Sui
- Rick Owens
- Gareth Pugh
- Ann Demeulemeester
- Philipp Plein
- Hedi Slimane
- John Richmond
- John Galliano
- Olivier Theyskens
- Yohji Yamamoto
- Thierry Mugler
- Claude Montana
- Jean Paul Gaultier
- Christian Lacroix
- Riccardo Tisci
- Raf Simons
- Stefano Pilati
- Helena Horstedt
- Hanna Hedman
Goth Icons and Celebrities
The following are post-punk artists and influential figures who pioneered the gothic-rock genre and helped develop and shape the subculture:
- Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees
- Peter Murphy of Bauhaus
- Robert Smith of the Cure
- Dave Vanian of The Damned
- Rozz Williams of Christian Death
- Olli Wisdom of the band Specimen
- Jonathan Melton, aka Jonny Slut – keyboardist who evolved the Batcave style
- Nick Cave of the Birthday Party – dubbed as “the grand lord of gothic lushness”
Goth Music Bands and Artists
The most popular Goth music bands from its foundation in the 80s to modern times are as follows:
- Siouxsie and the Banshees
- Joy Division
- The Cure
- The Birthday Party
- early Adam and the Ants
- Southern Death Cult
- Sex Gang Children
- UK Decay
- Virgin Prunes
- Killing Joke
- The Damned
- The Sisters of Mercy
- The Mission
- Alien Sex Fiend
- The March Violets
- Xmal Deutschland
- the Membranes
- Fields of the Nephilim
- Jack Off Jill (Riot Goth)
- Cocteau Twins
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
- Facts About Killing Joke
- The Horrors
- Christian Death
- Dead Can Dance
- Gene Loves Jezebel
- The Legendary Pink Dots
- Flesh For Lulu
- Virgin Prunes
- Killing Joke
- Play Dead
- Claytown Troupel
Goth Books and Novels
The following are the books that influenced the Goth subculture the most:
- Oh My Goth! by Aurelio Voltaire (2 Versions)
- Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite
- Gothikana by RuNyx
- Goth by Otsuichi
- Goth Craft: The Magickal Side of Dark Culture by Raven Digitalis
- Goth Girl, Queen of the Universe by Lindsay S. Zrull
- Goth by Kenji Oiwa
- Worldwide Gothic: A Chronicle of a Tribe by Natasha Scharf
- Hex Files: The Goth Bible by Mick Mercer
- Gothic: Dark Glamour by Valerie Steele
- Goth: Undead Subculture by Lauren M.E. Goodlad
- Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture (Dress, Body, Culture) by Paul Hodkinson
- Goth Chic: A Connoisseur’s Guide to Dark Culture by Gavin Baddeley
- Paint It Black: A Guide To Gothic Homemaking by Aurelio Voltaire
- Chilling Horror Short Stories by Laura Bulbeck
Other essential novels that influenced and shaped the Goth subculture are:
- Dracula by Bram Stoker
- The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
- The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
- Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
- The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
- The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales by Edgar Allan Poe
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Dragonwyck by Anya Seton
- The Bloody Chamber: And Other Stories by Angela Carter
- Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
- Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
- Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice
Most Popular Gothic Movies
The following are the most popular movies in the Goth subculture:
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
- Nosferatu (1922)
- Dracula (1931)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- The Hunger (1983)
- Return of the Living Dead (1985)
- The Lost Boys (1987)
- Hellraiser (1987)
- Heathers (1988)
- Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1988)
- Beetlejuice (1988)
- Night of the Demons (1988)
- Edward Scissorhands (1990)
- The Addams Family (1991)
- The Crow (1994)
- The Craft (1996)
- I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
- Bride of Chucky (1998)
- The Virgin Suicides (1999)
- Ginger Snaps (2000)
- Donnie Darko (2001)
- Gypsy 83 (2001)
- Corpse Bride (2005)
- Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
- Twilight (2008)
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
- Warm Bodies (2013)
- Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
- Mary Shelley (2017)
- Wednesday (2022)
Goth Communities and Events
The early goth scene was centered on music festivals, nightclubs, and fan meetings in Western Europe.
Of all, two clubs are hailed as critical to forming the Goth subculture.
- F Club in Leeds in Northern England opened in 1977 as a punk club and became instrumental in developing the goth subculture in the 1980s.
2. Batcave opened in 1982 in London’s Soho as a prominent meeting point for the emerging Goth scene.
Goths use social media to meet people with similar musical, artistic, and stylistic interests.
Before the rise of social media, online forums had the same function for goths (and still have to some extent).
With events like the Whitby Goth Weekend rising in popularity, the online Goth community made a resurgence.
Let’s not forget the World Goth date; it originated in 2009 when BBC6 Music ran a series on music subcultures, nowadays celebrated yearly on the 22nd of May.
Keep up with the latest in fashion, beauty and style!
A University of Oxford graduate in Design History, Katherine Saxon is researching arising TikTok cultures from a consumer psychology perspective while covering emerging aesthetics in fashion and beauty for TheVOU, Forbes, Business Insider, and more.