A Brief History
If Malcolm McLaren hadn’t been running a bondage fashion shop, one can wonder if punks would have chosen some other apparel to shock middle-class sensibilities. The prevalence of bondage gear as punk—and later, Goth—signifiers has its roots partially in McLaren’s desire to promote his shop (then co-owned with Vivienne Westwood). But looking beyond the capitalist reasons why bondage fashion was associated with the punk movement, there are a number of symbolic meanings expressed by the choice of bondage as fashion. Westwood has been influential in shaping postmodern fashion, an aesthetic that embraces “clothing and imagery that appear dirty, ripped, scarred, shocking, spectacular, cruel, traumatized, sick, or alienating.” The youth of an economically ravaged, crumbling former empire walking the streets in collars, leashes and pants with strategically-placed straps and buckles designed for immobilization aimed for shock, spectacle and alienation. If Nationalism is Romantic (and I do think that it is) then punk used a harsh anti-Romanticism as a political and sartorial weapon. Bondage as fashion confronted several social myths. Gavin Baddeley, in the book Goth Chic, claims that “punk’s self-appointed thought police . . . associated sexual dominance games with sexism and the hated middle classes.” In laying bare the power dynamics of romantic-sexual relationships, bondage gear made visible the tension between power and romance underlying hetero relationships. Bondage fashion brought society’s dirty secrets out onto the streets. It revealed the former empire’s decadence, cruelty and hypocrisy. Wearing bondage gear was a sign that the wearer wasn’t buying in to the mainstream’s romantic narrative and their role therein.
Ironically, punk has historically been a subculture that prizes certain active virtues assumed to be masculine—freedom from authority, toughness, self-sufficiency—yet males (and females) embraced bondage fashions that in BDSM circles often denote submissiveness such as dog collars, wrist cuffs, and padlocked chains. These fashions paired with aggressive metal spikes, combat boots and hard, gravity-defying hairstyles. While punk music for the most part embraces an aggressive, anti-authoritarian and occasionally nihilistic perspective, there is a connection between submissive BDSM signals and the punk message. Portraying oneself as bound, restricted, beaten or oppressed reflected the real economic and social state of the youth in the U.K. (and to a lesser extent, the U.S.) during the 1970s. The Sex Pistols declared there was no future. X-Ray Specs more overtly mocked youths’ social position with the lines “thrash me, crash me, beat me till I fall. I wanna be a victim for you all” in “Oh Bondage up Yours.” This sentiment gets to the heart of the punk use of bondage fashion: while it demonstrated the wearer’s sense of alienation, it also confronted the passersby with their own complicity in a system that kept them in slavery to its useful social and economic fictions.
As Goth mutated away from punk it kept the latter’s resistance to the mainstream. In many ways, the practice of rejecting mainstream values shaped much of Goth’s preoccupations; from alternative spiritualities (Wicca, Neo-Paganism, Left-Hand Paths other forms of magick) to alternative sexualities. While punks also availed themselves of fetish fashions, Goth embraced these is sometimes unironic ways. As part of an expression of allegiance with everything shunned by the dominant culture, fetish and bondage fashion fit neatly into Goth’s system of valorizing the shadow side of the collective psyche. In a great post on what’s wrong with conflating the BDSM-fetish scenes and the Industrial music scene on the Industrial Anti-Oppression blog, Strigiform writes “from what I understand, industrial was not always associated with fetish, latex, women making out for men, etc. It was associated with pushing boundaries and counter cultures which I am sure at times included BDSM.” As with Goth, alignment with marginalized or underground groups and practices was sought as a rejection of the mainstream. The (at one time) difficulty of finding these items of clothing further imbued the wearer with subcultural credibility, as this formed a visible barrier to purchasing a Goth wardrobe from your local department store. However, Goth’s orientation toward more feminine values colored the use of sexualized clothing. For example, the corset—which by the late 20th century had ceased to be underwear and become fetishwear—exaggerated the natural shape of the feminine body in resistance to the dominant culture’s ideal of a very thin, athletic, less fleshy female shape. The corset suits bodies that have some adipose tissue to compress and shift, and Goths of all sizes enjoy the benefits of this severe restriction. The corset, preferably with steel boning, tightened to reduce the waist by up to four inches, also forces the wearer upright. Its weight and rigidity encompass the wearer like armor. A common refrain found on buttons, t-shirts and stickers marketed to Goths proclaims “Tight? Of CORSET is” or some variant thereof, claiming the difficulty and occasional discomfort of corsetry as a signal of subcultural pride.
A Note on Corsets
A brief digression here on the comfort, or lack thereof, of corset-wearing. Modern corsets may give that Victorian hourglass shape, but they are made quite differently and are designed to be worn primarily as outerwear, not underwear. Aside from some extreme body modifiers, the 15-inch waists Victorian medical literature warned about are not prevalent. Keep in mind that those tiny-waisted women of yore were put into corsets in childhood and constantly wore compressive garments as they grew. Think of them as having bonsai waists if it helps. A modern corset can be quite comfortable for a long evening. The lacing can be adjusted so that the wearer can take full breaths. Some people can bend and dance with no problem. I have trouble bending at the waist when I wear one, but that’s easily accommodated. There have been times that I couldn’t wait to get out of my corset; one being when I made the mistake of wearing an underwire bra underneath—remember, everything gets pushed up—another when I went for a corset fitting right after eating a broccoli omelet. Nothing bad happened, it just made my stomach hurt after 10 minutes.
The Meaning of Masochism
BDSM fashion symbolically represented the Gothic embrace of romanticized pain, masochism and the taboo, forbidden or occult (L. occultus “hidden, concealed, secret,”). This, I believe, also explains the prevalence of Catholic imagery and symbols such as crucifixes and the more bloody depictions of martyrdom; imagery of pain and suffering appeal to a perspective that seeks the sublime through darkness. Catholicism has a particularly vivid and rich tradition of encouraging the aestheticization of pain, with many examples of beautiful artwork depicting the death and suffering of saints. Bondage fashion is another way to wear reminders of pain. Gothic masochism tends to embrace pain as entwined with pleasure, at least psychologically. Piercings, tattoos and other body modifications are also visible signals of pain turned into beauty. However, masochism cannot be taken as a literal pursuit. Alongside the Gothic celebration of symbolic masochism, there are the appealing dramatized and ritualized aspects of fetish/BDSM images. The Gothic aesthetic is nothing if not dramatic, and BDSM imagery often involves ritualized violence and power as sexual psychodrama. Even though there is some overlap between Gothic and BDSM circles, it would be a mistake to assume that because a Goth is dressed in a black latex catsuit she’s indicating any interest in flogging random men who cross her path. The drama of power as expressed through fashion is the primary interest more often than not.
Here is the greatest misunderstanding outside Goth circles. Bondage and fetish fashions, though not worn with punk’s confrontational intent, are symbolic of a perspective that embraces aestheticized masochism, not necessarily literal BDSM interests. In Paul Hodkinson’ Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture, many of his interviewees mentioned being irritated by people who assumed their Gothic fetish fashions were sexual advertisements. The post from Gothic Confessions above testifies that Gothic fashion is still being misinterpreted. Even the code of conduct at NYC Goth club Absolution addresses this:
“Will you find someone at ABSOLUTION to satisfy your fetish? You could, but that is not the main topic of the night so sitting around all night waiting for someone to spank or trample you might prove frustrating. If your main goal is to satisfy a fetish, you may have better luck at a party which lists fetishism as one of its main topics.”
Gothic dating sites seem full of men who have no interest in Gothic culture, but will leeringly write at length about how they’ve heard Gothic women are “freaky” and “will do anything.” The conduct code at Absolution goes on to explain
“A word about fetishists who are “carpet men”(guys who like to lie down on the floor and get trampled): You are welcome to come in and lie down on the floor in the hope of being trampled, but you cannot lie down in front of the bar at my club. I realize this is the area where people are most likely to congregate, but that makes no difference because we need that area accessible to customers. The truth is that if you employed the services of a dominatrix to satisfy your “trampling fetish”, you’d be spending upwards of $300 or more for a single hour of her time. You are gratifying your fetish for $10 or less at my club for many hours, so you get what you pay for,” further demonstrating that Goths are often assumed to be some sort of brigade of volunteer kinky sex workers.
In my next post, I want to address how class dynamics fit into this picture, as well as covering what I’ve come to see as increased conformity to mainstream gender roles.
It’s a momentous occasion for sure. You can now buy my book through Amazon. Tomorrow, it will go live on the Barnes & Noble website. It’s also going to be available through Smashwords, probably tomorrow as well, I just can’t find it today. Read it, review it, cherish it as if it were a precious baby bunny made of solid gold!
I suppose this is going to cost me my internet anonymity, if I ever actually had any, but I can’t not mention it. I’ve explained the types of stories I write on my author website KarenDBest.com, so if you’re interested in reading that, it’s available. You can also read a synopsis and the first story of the collection at Beating Windward Press.
It is a bit odd integrating my writing here with my real name and fiction work. Not that I think the two are unrelated in my mind, but I like maintaining different functional personas. I’m not necessarily comfortable having people who know me from other contexts reading my work, but I guess that’s one of those introvert things that I have to get over once bits of my psyche make it out into the public.
Ready Player One takes place in a future universe in which a digital reality has supplanted the boring old analogue version. This world, the OASIS, was partly created by a man called James Halliday. The creation of this wildly popular online environment has made Halliday immensely rich. Too bad he’s dead, and he’s decided to award his estate to whomever can solve the series of puzzles he’s embedded in the OASIS. As a result, the popular culture of the year 2044 is dominated by nerdly obsessions from the 1980s as people dedicate themselves to examining Halliday’s every minute interest for clues. Wade Watts is the hero, a poor kid and an orphan to boot. His devotion to being a true follower of Halliday and encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture trivia pays off for this underdog. What happens is not of great interest to me, since if you can’t already tell, Watts beats the game and wins the spoils. What is more interesting to me are some of the unexamined implications in this book.
First is the notion that searching for Halliday’s fortune (a subculture known in the book by the inelegant portmanteau gunter, a fusion of egg and hunter) eclipses present popular culture in such a way as to render it nonexistent. Everywhere in the OASIS, people live in 80s movies, listen to 80s music, memorize old Dungeons and Dragons modules because Halliday was known to have once played them. There’s little in the book about the world outside of the OASIS. What we do see are trailer parks in which the units have been welded into stacks, vague mentions of an energy crisis that leave certain areas with sporadic electricity, dormitories-cum-prisons in which corporate debtors are forced to work off their debts. The outside world is of little consequence to Watts, in part, because the economy of the OASIS has eclipsed that of the meatspace. Having money in the OASIS seems to be more important. There are some things that reflect the meatspace world. Transportation from one place to another takes credits that can be earned in the OASIS or bought with currency. But for the most part, power in the real doesn’t necessarily translate into power in the OASIS. Meanwhile, in the OASIS, teens run around wearing clothes from well-known 80s films, arguing about Ladyhawke, playing low-res arcade games, hanging out in replicas of Halliday’s childhood home and otherwise behaving more of less like teen versions of the book’s 30-something target audience.
This is the purpose of the book, as far as I can tell. It’s about combining 80s geek signifiers to press that nostalgia button for the reader. It posits a world in which a major geek fantasy has come true; the fantasy that pop-culture trivia will suddenly become the only relevant currency in the world. Then those who can recite every word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will be kings. The cultural references seem placed throughout the book to trigger a reaction of “I recognize that, therefore I like it” from the reader, which is becoming a serious malaise in the 21st century. This isn’t Eliot making a statement with bits of Arthurian legend, it’s Watts driving a virtual hybrid of the cars from Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Why? Not sure entirely. I kept expecting the references to have some purpose in revealing either Watts’ character or Halliday’s but I gave up on that about a third of the way through.
There seems to be no new culture, rather a pastiche of dead-ends from the 20th century. We’re not far from this ourselves; endlessly recycling films, music and fashion from 20-30 years ago. Patton Oswalt named this phenomenon “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” And in the book, Watts praises the ready availability of every cultural artifact in the OASIS. Oswalt wrote that “Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?” This is the world of Ready Player One, and the bleakest element of the book. Forget the 20 people living in one trailer, the absolute death of innovation and art signals the entropic state of American culture. Watts is a kid who is good at 80s arcade games. That’s his talent. He doesn’t produce or conceive of anything. I was initially surprised that Halliday’s will didn’t award his fortune to someone who was capable of innovating, as it appeared that what made Halliday special was this ability to create, but as I read I came to see Halliday as a disturbed person and potential megalomaniac.
There is very little to Halliday’s meatspace life. He’s drawn with the merest outlines of technocratic hero, meant to be a cipher figure into which the reader can project his or her geek sympathies. We know he was a nerdy kid. He worked with Ogden Morrow to create the OASIS. He apparently developed a young adult crush on a woman (I cannot remember her name. If you know it, drop me a line & I’ll put it in.) who was more interested in Morrow. As a result of Morrow’s marriage to this woman, Halliday became a recluse and spent the rest of his life in the OASIS.
Here I’d like to say that I hate “unrequited love” as a method of character building. It can work, but in this case it seems to exist in order for the reader to empathize with Halliday. It also hints at this nice-guy worldview in which it’s made into such a tragedy that the lover’s affections are unrecognized, yet it completely voids the woman’s agency to choose who she’d rather be with. I also hate “one-true-love” ideology and think it’s an excuse for obsessives to rationalize their issues. Halliday completely gives up on the real world after this one disappointment. This seems like an outsized response and exactly the sort of drama a teen would indulge in. His retreat from life seems like the symptom of an emotionally immature person. Bah. I am a heartless lady, because I always think “She picked someone else. Get over it.”
Anyway, Halliday continues to live after his death in the form of his avatar, a Dungeons and Dragons wizard called Anorak. The quest structure of the story involves its own troubled love plot between Watts and an avatar named Art3mis, who are both competing to complete the game. What’s troubling about the nature of the game is that it centers on deep knowledge of Halliday’s teen obsessions. These cultural products are framed as sources of comfort in Halliday’s youth. So, in seeking to make the game reflective of his lonely youth, Halliday is not so much reaching out to another similarly introverted outcast, but is ensuring that the winner will be someone who has studied him intensively. In other words, instead of looking for someone who created his own rich inner world out of cultural scraps, Halliday is ensuring he recreates himself by geek osmosis. He doesn’t want the heir to his fortune to be any another geek, he wants to create another geek as close to his own personality as possible, and since this is a world in which all culture is made out of retro, the method he chooses to replicate himself is pop-cultural pastiche. Halliday has made the OASIS a place where thousands of people live out his memories. There are planets devoted to replicating his childhood home over and over. In contrast, there’s much less veneration of the still-living Morrow, perhaps because he hasn’t waved a multi-billion dollar carrot in people’s faces to make them memorize all his favorite movies.
Halliday’s influence has shaped pop culture into his own personal scrapbook, which leads me into the next problem. All the people in the book are devoted to Halliday’s memory because there is a large cash prize attached. So what happens when the prize is won? The story really doesn’t linger on this point, but it appears that solving the game would essentially deprive thousands of purpose and destroy the world for gunters. Without the prize, why would anyone continue to participate? By proving his devotion to all things Halliday, Watts has eclipsed him and in essence destroyed his memory. Perhaps the future of Ready Player One is about a kid reliving Watts reliving Halliday playing Atari. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a Rubik’s Cube stamping on a human face—forever.
At the end of the story, Anorak appears to give Watts the prize along with a few words of wisdom. Part of which include an admonition not to become a recluse and spend all his time in the OASIS. Cough. If Watts wasn’t already 80% of the way there, would he have won the prize? Seems pretty weak to impart a life lesson that’s essentially “Go play outside.” Watts ends up sitting in a garden with the real Art3mis, having won her love despite out-competing her in the game. The end undercuts everything that has come before and makes an attempt to reassert the importance of the real world. I read this as a sigh of authorial defeat. What remains when the hero has essentially attained virtual godhood? Taking a walk outside. It strikes a false note because the real world has been so completely marginalized by the OASIS that it’s difficult to believe it matters at all. We’re returned to the values of our world, even though they have no place in the world of the story.
I’d love to have juxtaposed my thoughts about this book with another book; Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
If you, like me, grew up in the 90s, then, you may have been lucky enough to experience the wonderland of strange lipstick colors, DIY hair dye jobs, techno music and vampire role playing games. If you were not so fortunate, come now and hear the un-shocking truth about vampire roleplaying. Let me tell you of a time before Twilight and MMORPGs when the games were on paper and vampires were sexy but never sparkly. The game of choice was Vampire: the Masquerade. V:tM could be played as either a tabletop dice game like Dungeons and Dragons or a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game. Produced by a Georgia-based gaming company White Wolf, V:tM had several subtitle-happy companion games such as Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith: the Oblivion, etcetera. All these games shared a universe known as the World of Darkness, which was described in several of the source manuals as a “Gothic-Punk” world. The universe created by White Wolf was compellingly peppered with mythological references, obscure vocabulary and interesting alternate histories. In short, it was like crack to the sort of nerdbrain that thrived on Joy Division, etymological dictionaries and Bulfinch’s mythology.
One of the things that made V:tM more interesting than a typical hack-and-slash role playing game was the focus on building characters. As a vampire player, your character had two archetypal personalities, your public persona and a private, concealed personality. Rather being defined by a character class (what you character does) and alignment (good or evil) you could decide to be a Benefactor/Predator or a Scientist/Martyr. Your character belonged to a Clan which dictated what sorts of vampire powers you’d have. Clan affiliation also dictated your weaknesses. For example, the Toreador Clan were your basic Anne-Rice-style fancy lad vampires, making lots of art and devoted to beauty. One of their powers was the ability to emotionally manipulate people around them—think stage presence—but their weakness was that they could fall into a paralyzing fascination in the presence of beautiful artworks or people. Your vampire powers operated on a system of finite willpower points. I think this system would be a wonderful one to implement in real life. As in “I’d love to have the salad instead of fries, but I’m all out of willpower points today, so . . .” Willpower points were regained by sleeping, feeding or other actions dictated by your personality type. In the live game, the powers operated inelegantly. For example, if your powers made you invisible, you’d cross your arms over your upper chest—hands touching shoulders—and everyone would have to pretend they didn’t see you creeping around. Even worse were the intangible powers, which would lead to dialogue like this:
“I just used my powers to make you do my bidding.”
“Oh, okay. What do you want me to do?”
“Go over there and ask that girl if she’s got a boyfriend.”
Since most of the people I played with were in high school, our characters’ concerns fell often into one of the following categories:
- Being sexy and mysterious.
- Shoving it to The Man.
- Killing each other. Preferably with explosives.
These goals took some doing to act out in a suburban park or in one of our back yards. It was hard to be sexy and mysterious when your mom drops you off for the game. Even harder than that was convincing all the people loafing around on your back porch that they’ve just been in a hellish explosion. LARPing with your school chums also led to plenty of awkward moments when trying to decide if the person talking to you was the kid from math class or Destructo, the Undead Viking. Generally, you’d just ask if they were in character, but by the time people started feeling comfortable slipping out of character, the game would devolve into a night of hanging out in a parking lot.
The live-action game usually ran like a chaotic play about a deranged city council. A major premise of the game was that vampires engaged in a conspiracy to control humanity and conceal their existence from same. An easy plot was to call a meeting about some outlier whose sloppy feeding habits were threatening to reveal the existence of vampires. It’s hardly surprising that the game attracted a lot of Drama Club members highly devoted to acting out their awesome vampire characters. At live action games, the players tended to dress the part—lots of black leather jackets and thrift-store black lace dresses—and to put on British-ish accents or Enunciate. Dramatically. And crisply. The system required a folded up sheet of characteristics and powers you had. This was kept on your person and consulted when an interaction required you to engage in verbal conflict with another player. In the case that your attributes or powers were matched to your opponents, you could decide the matter with a round of rock-paper-scissors overseen by the rule-enforcing Storyteller. (I guess that by then, people had figured out that Dungeonmaster had other connotations.) Imagine, if you will, the tense confrontation between a rebellious young punk and the be-suited stiff representing the repressive social order. The harsh words and open contempt. The powerful deciding throw of rock versus scissors.
The post-Columbine hysteria about the sinister practice of Vampire LARPing led to a brief spike in the game’s popularity before an almost total loss of media interest in the game. For those of us who played, the fear was totally misplaced. We weren’t keying ourselves up to be psychopaths. We were just escaping into a world where we could be glamorous and powerful. Monday morning would shuffle us back into the system, but Saturday nights we could rule the world.
As difficult as it may be to believe, skulls were once considered reminders of death and emblems against vanity and not just cutesy motifs for an Avril Lavigne-branded sweater. The image of the skull in art traditionally reminds the viewer of inevitable and impending mortality. These Memento Mori tell us, the viewers, that death comes for all. Seems like an incompatible thought to emblazon on disposable consumer goods, though to me, the trend of cute, quaint skulls smacks of our collective attempts to defang mortality. The cute skull is intended to say less to the viewer than it reveals about the wearer. It tells others that you consider yourself edgy or wish to appear mildly threatening without diverging too far from the mainstream of consumer values. Yes, I am including Ed Hardy here, as the rhinestone skull may be the worst offender when it comes to trivializing and kitschifying death. I’m also willing to acknowledge that kitsch is part of the humorous flip-side to Goth’s funereal overtones—“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was recorded as a joke, after all—and the cute is often a necessary chaser to the morbid. However, I tend not to lean toward this aesthetic of cute skulls, candy witches and swirls of pink in my blacks. By the same token, I’m not about to go all Mortiis and armour myself in the darkest darkety dark of serious darkness. I prefer to walk a line that takes me near the abyss without setting up camp at the bottom. I’ve been thinking of this look as Classical Morbid. It’s part Trad Goth, part Corporate Goth. All that being said, the skull is still a compelling image that is a staple of Gothic fashion. I’ve found some examples on Etsy that retain something of the heft of the Memento Mori.
Yes, I know what I just said about rhinestone skulls, but this jacket from Urbanhardware transcends the usual rhinestone skull in its wonderfully shaded and detailed execution. The closer the skull to the complexity of the anatomical image, the more visually interesting it becomes. The jacket’s use of velvet and lace are also an elegant touch. I love this sort of “Death is a Dandy” fashion.
Subtlety is key with the understated Goth look I’ve been pursuing lately. I have a tiny silver skull necklace very similar to this one by Etco. A tiny pendant like this can give a surprising flash of your morbid sensibilities without announcing itself too overtly. Mine is on a fine silver ball-chain. I like wearing it with a quartz pendulum or a tiny silver wax-seal medallion.
This basic white stoneware skull made by Leigh Leigh Pottery would look great on top of a stack of leather-bound books. It’s a higher quality material that won’t remind you of styrofoam Halloween decorations. A basic ceramic figure such as this one also strikes me as less kitschy than a skull candleholder.
There’s no doubt, etchings are classy; just ask dead hottie, Albrecht Durer. This print, available from Tiger House Art, framed in an ornate black baroque frame, would make a great elegant Goth touch to any room. I have this print in my writing/sewing room.
I hope this has demonstrated a few ways to reclaim the skull from irrelevance, etcetera.