The Pete Guide To Goth

For an in-depth study of the origins of goth, check out my History of Goth site, but for a general overview see below:

What is goth?

Goth is an alternative subculture; it is both a style of music and a fashion, like Punk. People who listen to the music don't necessarily dress in the style, but people who dress goth usually like the music (and are thus termed Goths). Although some metal fans and Marilyn Manson fans can look similar...

Where did the name come from?

The name originally came from a Germanic tribe (ie the Goths). The Romans regarded them as barbaric and uncultured, much like the Vandals. "Gothic" was later applied to a style of medieval architecture by critics who regarded it as similarly barbaric and uncultured (something similar happened with the term "Vandal"). The term was later applied to a late 18th/early 19th century style of literature which had a fascination with death and the supernatural.

The term "Goth" was first applied to music in about 1979. It was applied to the band Joy Division, who were a very important Goth influence, and was later applied to the first wave of Goth bands- Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, the Cure, UK Decay.

Later still, the term "Goths" or "Gothic Punks" was applied to fans of the music, particularly those that had the gothic look.

What is the "Gothic Look"?

The early goths looked similar to punks, except that the predominant colours were black for hair & clothing (with the occasional outburst of white, red or purple) and silver for jewellery. Thus they had ripped clothing, and even mohicans, though the "Goth Mohican" was usually black and much wider than the punk version (shaved at the sides only). They also tended to spout a lot of fishnet (more usually on the arms for men) and had a distinctive style of makeup, with very white faces and lots of black eyeliner (for both men and women). Hair was usually dyed black, crimped and backcombed.

At first the hair was usually fairly short for men, backcombed up, but by the mid-to-late eighties long black hair became fashionable and it's now more usual to see hair long & down than shaved at the sides & spiked up. Makeup remains an integral part of the look, but clothing has diversified so that some now wear clothes influenced by 18th or early 19th century styles whilst others wear PVC, leather & fishnet. (crushed velvet tends to be another goth favourite). And some of them wear both, though not usually at the same time. Black and white remain the predominant colours, with red or purple still making an appearance. Distinctive fabrics tend to be silk, crushed velvet, leather & PVC.

What does Goth music sound like?

The first goth music grew out of punk, and some of the early bands were very lively, characterised by tribal drumming. Things changed in the mid-eighties, mainly due to the rise of the Sisters of Mercy, probably the most well-known goth band. The Sisters were characterised by deep vocals, simple yet prominent basslines, and simple drum machine rhythms. Unfortunately they came to typify the "Goth Sound" and too many later bands followed their example.

Later on, there was some crossover with the Industrial scene, and some bands now use electronic sounds as wellas the archetypal guitar/bass/drum machine/vocals.

There is also a fair bit of "ambient" goth, characterised by subtle instrumentation and haunting female vocals.

Lyrically, goth tends to be on the doomy side- dark lyrics and a doomy sound are fairly typical of most (but not all) goth these days.

What has religion got to do with goths?*

Not much. Those goths who have a religion are of any denomination- Catholic, Anglican, Pagan, Buddhist, whatever. A large proportion are in fact atheist or just aren't bothered. The occasional borrowing of religious imagery is usually just a fashion thing.

What has the occult got to do with goths?*

Likewise, not much. Some goths consider the occult to be complete nonsense, most aren't bothered either way. Again, there is the occasional use of occult imagery in songs or artwork, but this doesn't often mean anything other than that it looks/sounds nice.

What about strange depraved sexual habits?*

Despite the makeup & look, the incidence of homo- or bi- sexuality amongst goths is probably no higher than amongst any other subgroup. It's certainly lower than amongst Tory MPs. Generally, goths are less hung up about their sexuality than the general population, and a lot more tolerant of different sexual inclinations. There's some crossover with the fetish scene, but not that many goths are actively into it.

What about this Goth Revival then?*

For a few years, goth was almost dead in Britain, partially due to ridicule from the music press and partially due to the lack of any decent new bands. However, it has recently undergone a revival, partly due to the continuing popularity of goth abroad (especially in Germany & America). Some popular alternative bands like Placebo and Garbage have used goth imagery and/or sound, and there are many new(ish) goth bands like the Horatii, the Merry Thoughts and Rosetta Stone.

What are goths like?

There isn't really a particular "goth personality", but many of them share the following traits:

  • They take great pride in their appearance
  • They're generally polite and almost always non-violent.
  • They quite often have an "arty" side.

They're usually intelligent- a surprising number of goths are involved with technology or computing, and there are a disproportionate number of them on the Internet.

* All of these apply to the British goth scene - things elsewhere may be different...