Show Hide image

Darkness at noon

I met a knot of Goths at night, posing through Smithfield Market on the Day of the Dead, youngsters whose artifice and formality was too much for this world: all dressed up and nowhere grave enough to go. Few crypts could have lived up to their aspirations. No surprise that Gothicism tempts art-school students. Valerie Steele, in her essay on the outfitting side of Gothic: Dark Glamour (Yale University Press, £19.99), is at her most persuasive when she connects the Goth culture of the past 30 years with Baudelaire, "the black prince of elegance" of the 1840s, a self-made outsider - dandy, vampire, aristocrat - who ticks all the right wrong boxes.

Steele distinguishes and explains Gothic subdivisions and alliances, from early Industrial Goth through to current steampunk, each maintaining dress codes more nuanced than Victorian high-society quarter-mourning, plus the Gothic relationship with couture and photography. She also detours into the Japanese Gothic Lolita fashion market, a dressing-up box selling pricey black satin corsets for teens who want to costume-play as bloodsucker, or, more often, bloodsucked - these being the only female choices except in steampunk, where whore/engineer is an option.

Yet the truly arresting clothes aren't those shown on petulant modern little madams exposing their puppy fat in London, New York and Tokyo clubs, but real 19th-century, post-funereal ensembles of the prescribed matte black silk crape, which absorbs light utterly - the deadest surface imaginable, lustreless - beside which fashion's claw, talon and skeleton experiments are just a lark decked out with chiffon-weight waffle statements from designers. The second section of the book, Jennifer Park's essay on Goth music, from its Velvet Underground, glam-rock and punk origins to its present, subdivided into more niches than the Paris catacombs, is mercifully crisp in tone. Nobody is allowed to maunder on about decadence for more than two sentences.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror