The Lady Is a Vamp: Fashion's On Again Off Again Gothic Romance

The Lady Is a Vamp: Fashion's On Again Off Again Gothic Romance
From left: Looks from Rick Owens, Gucci, and Ann Demeulemeester Fall 2012
((l-r) Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images, Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images, Style)

Once relegated to the provinces of sullen suburban middle schoolers and bad latter-day Tim Burton movies, Gothic is back in a big way. The fall/winter 2012 runway shows saw different variations on the prevailing trend. For what was his final collection for Yves Saint Laurent, Stefano Pilati turned out an army of iron maidens festooned in chain mail and leather. At Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci married leather fetishism with equestrian suiting. Similarly, the first eight looks at Valentino were a study in Steampunk leatherwear. Darkness permeated Alber Elbaz’s Technicolor ’80s boardroom atmosphere at Lanvin. Nina Ricci’s Peter Copping played with the witchy allure of sheer black and oxblood chiffon. Rick Owens’s floor-sweeping and face-obscuring vestments evoked women of the cloth. Even Michael Kors took a walk on the dark side, in the neighborhood of leather and dueling plaids. Frida Giannini transformed the Gucci girl — a creature synonymous with itsy bitsy mini dresses and trendy handbags —into a dandified femmes fatale decked out in lush velvets, illusion lace, and floor-length capes.

The fall runway’s flirtation with dark glamour has already translated to trend-chasing mass retailers like Top ShopAsos, and Urban Outfitters. Street style doyennes, who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Hot Topic, are photographed wearing leatherlacewitchy asymmetrical hemlines and sleeves, crucifixes, and giant safety pins. The trend has no signs of slowing down. As ARTINFO recently noted, fashion’s obsession will all things noir infiltrated the typically pastel-dominated spring collections.


The history of Gothic unofficially begins with the Sack of Rome by the East Germanic Visigoths in the year 410, an event that marked the end of the Classical period and the beginning of the Middle Ages. As architectural historian Fiske Kimball notes, from the Renaissance to the 19th century, the term became a catchall pejorative for “barbaric,” non-classicizing styles, (though Gothic architecture — characterized by the prominence of valuated arches — was actually developed and perfected in France).

In a modern sense, Gothic begins in the 18th century with two interlocked trends: the Gothic Revival in architecture and the Gothic novel, both of which embodied a nostalgia for the Middle Ages against the secular rationalism of Enlightenment thought and Neoclassical aesthetics. While Neo-Gothic architecture was often an ideologically conservative movement — designed to fortify nationalistic and religious sentiments in a rapidly industrializing Europe — the Romantics used Gothic buildings as the locus of picturesque decay, the brooding passions of Byronic antiheroes, and wellsprings of supernatural horror.

From its beginnings in the 18th century, Gothic was a retro style, a rejection of modernity, a retreat into an aestheticized vision of a distant past. Talking about “Gothic revivalism” is almost redundant. An anti-movement that was revivalist from the beginning, Gothic will never die. As cultural historian Catherine Spooner argues in her essay "Undead Fashion: Nineties Style and the Perennial Return of the Goth,” it’s already “undead” and perennially returning: “Within the world of fashion, it is this enduring potency of gothic images for imaginative self-identification that leads to their perennial revival.” The raccoon-eyed Goth we know today, which emerged from postpunk music scenes associated with acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and Joy Division, drew on this classic cocktail of horror and romance.

The catalog for Valerie Steele's FIT exhibition Gothic: Dark Glamour,” attributes the 20th-century Goth’s all-black uniform to the Victorian cult of mourning, which prescribed a dress code of all-black widow’s weeds. In the ’90s, Jean Paul Gaultier, Alexander McQueen, Olivier Theyskens, Yohji Yamamoto, Rick Owens, and John Galliano hoisted the Gothic style onto the pedestal of high fashion. As Spooner puts it her essay, the “sad goth” upgraded to the “Gaultier goth.”

A resurgence of Gothic in fashion fits into our current zeitgeist, where romantic escapism is taking on dark nuances. While prosperous economies typically look toward a brave new sartorial future (note the roaring ’20s or the mod early-’60s), economies like our own often escape into the past. Nineteen-seventies stagflation was accompanied by a full-scale 1930s revival. The long hemlines and hyper-feminine glamour of the ’30s harkened back to the belle époque.

Today, the typically Gothic taste for eroticizing death and obsolescence — as one Steele puts it, transforming “the fear of death” into “a kind of sexually-charged horror,” is evident in the vampire mania that’s swept popular culture since the release of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” books in 2005. As innumerable writers have noted, “Twilight” fetishizes abstinence and equates sex with violence and death. (Meyer’s primly sadomasochist fantasy was teased out in E.L. James’s blockbuster erotic novel “50 Shades of Grey,” which was originally disseminated online as “Twilight” fan fiction.)

In the hands of moralists like Meyer, the new Gothic means neoconservative recourse to Victorian gender politics entrenched in repressed desire. Though it’s set in the present day, “Twilight” — like all Gothic novels — is a flight from modernity.

But regardless of its politics, Gothic speaks to a desire to be someone else and somewhere else. The mantillas, capes, and courtly leather body armor that are in style today are the flipside of Meyer’s chastity-obsessed, antifeminist Gothicism. Gothic fashion isn’t for shrinking violets. The wearer becomes architect and sole protagonist in a fairytale of her own making, momentarily transformed into a walking anachronism from a shadowy underworld.