by Rachel Covert and Kirsten Fiebelkorn
“Although popularly identified with black-clad teenagers and rock musicians, the gothic has also been an important theme in contemporary fashion. The imagery of death and decay, the power of horror, and the erotic macabre are perversely attractive to many designers. For example, John Galliano told me that he saw the ‘Gothic girl’ as ‘edgy and cool, vampy and mysterious,’ while the most recent Rodarte collection was inspired by Japanese horror films.”
– Dr. Valerie Steele curator of Gothic: Dark Glamour
The exhibit currently on display at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) “Gothic: Dark Glamour” focuses heavily on the visual ideals of the 18th century Gothic Romanticism, which still live today both in couture fashion and subversive street fashion. Most of the items and garments on display focused on modern couture’s obsession with the macabre and gloomy rebellious decay that represents gothic styling.
There were perhaps 12 high-end designers represented among the 70 or so ensembles on display. These are the Gods of Dark Fashion: Yohji Yamamoto, Rick Owens, John Galliano, Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy, Alexander McQueen and Ann Demeulemeester. Although there were others, to me these were the designers who had the most literal and outrageous takes on goth couture. You could also find, the 18th century mourning widows in their black lace; heavy bustles and thick silks, the basis for gothic fashion; and an emphasis on decay and disenchantment.
FIT displays the garments in 7 sections: Cabinet of Curiosities, Night, Strange Beauty, Batcave, Mourning, Cemetery, Haunted Palace, and Ruined Castle. Interestingly, each section isn’t a place but rather an idea that invokes a strong physical response. Although most of the sections blended together, one section the Batcave, stood apart from the rest.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the first sections in the exhibit. This collection of objects emphasizes the importance of symbolism. Skulls, bats, and Victorian mourning jewelry are presented as mainstays of gothic culture, both historically and today. They represent the theme of gloom and death in the gothic mindset.
Night focused on the color black. Since the 15th century, black has been associated with wealth and aristocracy. In the Victorian era, it became a symbol of mourning. Today, black symbolizes the somber mood associated with death and formality, both mourning and aristocracy. Also represented in this section is the prim ‘Gothic Lolita’ style which features girlish empire dresses in varying states of decay and disarray. When the goth style was introduced into Japan, it blossomed into an active street culture. Kazuko Ogawa’s short dress is a prime example of this dark interpretation of the Lolita. Night focused on how the color black displayed the different aspects of goth, from mysterious, to erotic, to dangerous and deathly.
Batcave was the famous goth club located in London with a sister club located in New York City. This section focused on street fashion and less on couture. Displayed with two-way mirrors, the items on display demonstrated the transformation from punk of the 1970s to the dark, glamorous, and fetish influenced styles that are popular today. Lip Service, Plastik Wrap and Transmuter took their bows as popular brands identified with the cybergoth side of this fashion. The mirrors were lit so that you could only see the exhibit for 90 seconds at a time, symbolic of the dark and mysterious under-culture of today’s goth scene.
Mourning is probably the most common association with gothic culture. It was mandated during Victorian era to wear head-to-toe black in order to honor the dead. Widows were especially committed to the guise. Although these items of clothing were to be plain and simple, they were often elaborate, greatly influencing the Gods of Dark Fashion. Bustles, trains, veils, and ruffles were prominent detailing, emphasizing the dark romance often associated with death and decay.
Cemetery is related to mourning, both focusing on death. However a cemetery plays on the claustrophobic idea of being surrounded by a jagged fence. This section also represented the bondage of corsets, a strong aspect of gothic culture, both in high and mainstream fashion.
The Haunted Palace section touches upon the horror and psychological component of goth. According to the exhibit, this section was influenced by Eager Allen Poe. It related to Ruined Castle and the superstitions of medieval culture. Crosses become a prominent symbol in this section. Building ruins, creating the effect of a dismantled church, surround the pieces on display. It created a mysterious and gloomy setting, invoking thoughts of the supernatural.
FIT’s exhibit focused on the couture aspect of a concept that is often associated with street culture. Although the goth culture has never been a mainstream style, it has survived and transformed throughout decades of changing trends. Curator Valerie Steele’s take on the concept of gothic culture was thematically broad and visually dense. Her interesting choice of displays and lighting lent to a physical experience, rather than a visual interpretation. This exhibit is yet another example of the extensive collection of fashion objects at FIT, and Steele’s ability to personify an idea through clothing.
The exhibit is running from September 5, 2008 through February 21, 2009, in New York City, free, and open to the public. If you’re in the area, go have a look.
Photographs (in order) MFIT, Irving Solero, and Dan Lecca courtesy Rodarte.