Archive for the Fashion Category

Etsy Finds: Tetrad Edition

Posted in Clothes, Etsy, Fashion, Jewelry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by vprime

I return to you now at the turn of the tide, or something Gandalf would say. I’ve been consumed with my latest project, Baby Prime. Baby Prime is nearly a year old now, and it’s taken all this time to start getting some of my time and sanity back, but Baby is doing fabulously and I’m still shuffling about, gibbering and shedding hair as per the usual.

April begins a astrological/-nomical phenomena known as a Tetrad. This is a series of four lunar eclipses in a row. Astrologically, eclipses can set off crises in your life in the house in which the eclipse falls. These trials are often painful or stressful yet necessary for growth. So, we’re coming up on a set of four little personal apocalypses. For more about where you can expect your life to explode, see here. Perhaps you may be able to defray the Goddess’ wroth by robing yourself in her protective sigils.* Here are some examples:

bloodmoon pendantThis blood moon pendant by Out of Space Jewelry reflects the image of the darkened eclipse moon. Hang this around your neck in the hopes that in seeing her reflection, the Moon will briefly take pity upon you and confine her ill effects to an easily solved and inexpensive household issue, like running out of laundry soap.

lunar dressThis lunar jersey dress by Shadowplay NYC reminds the universe: “I’m a Moonchild. Do not fuck with me, dark powers.” It’s made of cotton jersey, and so sensible for the upcoming heat of late spring and summer. The dress can be worn several ways, either as a short dress or a long tunic. It’s sewn so that it hangs asymmetrically. I recently got one of these dresses in a different print from Shadowplay, and it fits more like a long tunic. I love their cosmic prints. Try wearing this to your Esbats for an extra moon-boost.

lunar calendarThis stylish lunar calendar by Thorburn Collective will help you keep track of the moon’s phases.

lunar amuletThe Lunar Amulet for Ceremonies of Intention by For Strange Women is a series of perfumes attuned to each new moon of the year. This version comes in a brass locket with faceted onyx representing the dark moon. There are some really stunning perfume lockets in their shop, like this one and this one.

phase earringsFor proper lunar protection, you’ll need silver. These hammered silver moon phase earrings by Aurora Shadow should fit the bill. Moon phases seem to be A Thing right now, from shirts to nails to cellphone covers, and I’m not opposed to this.

pyramid candleIf all else fails, pull out your pyramid of power candle (by Artisan Witchcrafts) and do whatever banishing rituals you need to get your shit back together.

Those are my words of advice. Do with them what you will. And that shall be the whole of the law etcetera etcetera. My hope is that I will return with something more substantive soon. Thank you.

*Disclaimer: I’m not a witch, Wiccan, neopagan or any sort of left-hand-pathfinder. I just really love the trappings and language of the occult, as I’m sure many vaugely Gothy folk do.

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Spellbound: BDSM in Gothic Fashion

Posted in Clothes, Culture, Fashion with tags , , , , on August 10, 2012 by vprime

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.

Anti-Ordinary

Archaic Smile Sticker

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.

Etsy Finds: Non-Lame Skulls Edition

Posted in Clothes, Culture, Decor, Etsy, Fashion, Jewelry with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2012 by vprime

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.

Fashion Inspiration: Aeon Flux

Posted in beauty, Clothes, Fashion with tags , , , , on November 30, 2011 by vprime

I’ve mentioned how much this show influenced me many times before. I love everything about this cartoon. Aeon’s an amazing, nearly posthuman, cyberpunk heroine. Her motives are shadowy, her missions often sinister, she doesn’t seem to be working for anyone so much as she’s an agent of anarchy.  Aeon is essentially chaotic neutral, switching sides and allegiances whenever it suits her needs. The look of the animation is slick, angular, both futuristic and retro. I made up a styleboard inspired by Aeon that’s less an attempt to copy her clothing exactly than a look inspired by all her outfits.
Starting in the upper left corner, I’ve chosen shiny suspender leggings by Black Milk. Strappy, black and slick are what I think of in regards to Aeon’s wardrobe. Just to the right we have a strappy pleather vest from Topshop. In the upper right corner, bright red lipstick. This lipstick in “Retrofuturist” by Lime Crime and several coats of waterproof (fly-trapping) mascara should be all the makeup you need. Just under the lipstick is a strappy harness bustier top by Topshop. In the lower left, a metal cuff by Gothic Punk Specialty Hardware. Many of Aeon’s outfits incorporate small metal plates or buckles, but not in an Edward Scissorhands-profusion. This cuff reminds me of the metal knee pads Aeon wears here:

You’ll need a pair of boots. Something I always appreciated about Aeon Flux is that she doesn’t run around in ridiculous heels (the metal-and-leather chastity thong is something else entirely) but sensibly wears flat boots. These boots by Nine West have a slight wedge heel and a futuristic mix of patent and matte material. Here is a better image of the boots:

The last thing you’ll need is an angled bob, lots of super-hold hairspray and a metric ton of bullets. For more detail on the products I chose and where you may purchase them, click on the styleboard image.

Nice Boots

Posted in Clothes, Fashion with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2011 by vprime

It’s been a tough week. Let’s look at some footwear.

Boots are well-known Goth aphrodisiac. From pointy-toed and elfin to platform stompers, Goths love boots. I have far too many pairs, so I’m endeavoring to wear some of them more often. It’s still quite hot here and I haven’t done well on that front. Boots are just another reason Goths love Fall/Winter. The Goth look is really not engineered for survival in hot climes.

All the above are covetable boots I’ve found recently by summoning the astral travelers of the intertubeway. (Note to self: “Intertubeway Army,” perfect name for a Gary Numan-internet meme crossover tribute band.) On the top left, we have black iridescent Doc Martens. Nineties nostalgia is in full swing amongst the youths, which may explain why I’ve noticed a resurgence in popularity of Docs. There are many more finishes and materials than were available in the 90s. Oxblood used to be exotic, but now there are metallics, neons, and fabrics. I’m actually quite in favor of kids jumping on the Docs trend if it means the company can offer greater variety. I haven’t seen these in person yet, but I have a ridiculous interest in anything with that oil-slick reflectivity. Anecdata suggests that the quality of the current line of Docs is nowhere near what was available in the 80s-90s. I do have several pairs of Docs and I have noticed that the fit is a bit different. For example, these Dr Marten Alloys I wore for Dragoncon. Even though I ordered the same size I always get, they felt huge. My foot was slipping around inside the boot all day, even with two pairs of thick socks on. The material was also quite soft. I understand the upper was meant to be distressed, but it had no stiffness to it at all, which further exacerbated the foot-slipping-around business. Because the sole is quite heavy and the upper is very soft, every time I picked up my foot I felt the weight of the sole shifting.

Well, proceeding. In the opposite corner, we have platform boots from Velvet Angels. These have contrasting textures and a metallic heel. A thick heel like this on a platform boot is a must for me. I don’t know how people do it with those little cocktail-straw heels, but then I wore combat boots exclusively through most of my 20s and I’ve never had the knack of being totally comfortable in heels. I’m fine for short events, but I certainly couldn’t, say,  walk around a city in heels of any sort.

Just under the iridescent Docs we have a pair of platform boots from Topshop. Again, chunky metallic heel. I’m pleased to see that there won’t be any shortage of chunky platforms in shops this Fall/Winter season.

To the right, we have a pair of belted platforms by Dollhouse. Loads of buckles are totally Goth, just ask Edward Scissorhands.

On the far right, glitter booties from Baker’s Shoes. I like this thick, yet tapered heel and the pointed toe. These look like great boots for a long skirt. Glitter-encrusted stuff is appealing to me, though I normally avoid anything to femmey-cutesy. I say that’s my inner Ziggy Stardust emerging.

Back to the lower left corner, we have a pair of extreme pointy toes from Fluevog. I’ve always wanted a pair of Fluevogs, but have yet to fulfill that desire. I love how unique their styles are, but there’s often one sticking detail that keeps me from ever pulling the trigger–besides the price. I’m a bit gun-shy on expensive boots since I destroyed a $400 pair of New Rocks in two months. Yes, that’s right. These are almost perfect 80s deathrock-style cockroach kickers (also called winklepickers). The one large buckle is a nice detail. I’m less thrilled about the fold-down top–which looks kind of sloppy to me–and the wooden heels. These kinds of shoes can go very Country and Western on you if you aren’t careful. I suppose that’s great if you’re Ian Astbury. It’s not for me.

Side note: can anyone explain why so many British dark/Goth rock outfits were doing all this American West stuff? I mean cowboy hats, cowboy boots, Native American mythology and imagery? Is this about equivalent to the American Goth with the fake English accent in a tailcoat?

Finally, in the lower right corner a pair of low-heeled black boots by Kickers. These look like perfect everyday boots. The lower heel seems quite manageable. Gunmetal buttons reference Victorian-style ladies boots while keeping the overall look modern. Because there isn’t an excess of ornament, these would be quite adaptable to different situations.Perhaps not as exciting as glitter and all, but a pair of nice, basic boots.

If you’d like to see these boots in their native habitats, please click here for my Kaboodle styleboard.

Planning on acquiring any new boots soon? Tell me about it in the comments.

Is Goth the New Goth?

Posted in Clothes, Culture, Fashion, Music, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 16, 2011 by vprime

Over the Labor Day weekend, I attended DragonCon in Atlanta. I hadn’t been since probably 2006. At that time, there was a dedicated Goth track, mostly having to do with vampire-related materials. This time, the Goth track was replaced by a general Dark Fantasy track with a few panels on Goth-specific issues. There’s major overlap between Gothdom and Geekdom, but I suppose that as interest in Goth (as opposed to its musical & cultural cousins: EBM, Steampunk, whatever that plastic-hair, fairy-wings, tutu and Muppet-fur business is about) wanes, it gets rolled into the nearest welcoming category. There was a panel on “The State of the Scene” which I had to miss, but I was able to make it to the panel on the question “Is Goth the New Goth?” Purportedly, we were to hear a discussion on the rise of other Goth-adjacent music. The panel, composed of members of Bella Morte and The Last Dance, also included Doc Hammer. They didn’t get too deep into what identifiable causes could explain the leakage of Gothic imagery into other subcultural streams. The conversation quickly turned to whether greater popular exposure for Goth was good or bad. Hammer rejected the notion that all exposure for Goth was ultimately positive while the fellow from Bella Morte unhesitatingly championed the notion of being able to purchase Joy Division t-shirts at Kmart. Hammer expressed a concern that the version of Goth that gets sold back to us by mass media was a shallow, cheap version of the original. This distinction made him sound like an elitist and the other panelists took issue with his exclusionary view.

The thing is, I found myself agreeing with Hammer over the other opinions. He described his interest in Goth as akin to being an “archaeologist” of the obscure. Having music that you’ve carefully unearthed and treasured for its rarity suddenly explode into a commodity is an unsettling experience because it’s no longer your secret pleasure. It doesn’t “belong” to you anymore. I had to agree with Hammer that widespread popularity is a big discouragement when it comes to my personal cultural diet. I guess I am just being an elitist, the inverse of the poseur who professes love for whatever’s popular, but there it is. I also realize that there is no such thing as truly underground anything. Everything is a commodity, “coolness” is just a way to get us to buy more, and the genius creator is a Western myth, blah blah blah. I get it. But, there is also an element of ego-construction in these choices. I don’t want to be the person who cares what TMZ says or listens to Kreayshawn or invests in what the Kardashians are doing. Most of what we—as a culture—produce, is awful, soul-killing sludge, and it seems like the worse something is, the more attention it gets (Michael Bay, anyone?) It is any wonder that there are people out there who want to avoid everything with the mass stamp of approval?  The version of Goth that’s most heavily marketed—anything made by Tim Burton after Batman Returns, that “Goth” chick on that forensic TV show, all things heavily Halloween-themed—gets varnished in twee to make it go down easier. That’s the shallow, cheap version I suspect Hammer meant. I add here all the Gothic Lolita stuff, which just covers the Japanese rage for female infantilization in a coating of “spooky.” The Gothic aesthetic has absorbed a lot of kitsch, and it’s the kitsch version that sells. Maybe Goth can only be popular by being grafted onto something else—cuteness, quaintness, romance. At the panel, Hammer pointed out that Goth hasn’t ever peaked. Unlike Punk, Goth has never experienced huge commercial successes. Goth hasn’t dominated music charts or influenced bands that would prevail over rock like Punk has. There have been spikes of attention—late 90s Columbine hysteria, for example—that never last long. But Goth has been there, enduring. Goth is a bit like an underground stream. It goes on, (mostly) invisible and silent.

I've seen the future, brother. It is murder.

I wanted to know more about why Goth has become so appropriated. My theory is that for many people Goth is primarily a fashion to be “mashed-up” (I hate that term) with whatever else is lying around just for temporary amusement. The Millennial generation views culture as a box of crayons—they mix, combine, make whatever suits their fancies without ascribing any inherent substance to the tools. Putting on a “Goth” outfit is like costuming oneself as a hippie or fireman or a chimpanzee—it isn’t a reflection of an ideology or identity. The result of this philosophy is that anything and everything can be appropriated purely for the image. That hypothetical Joy Division shirt in Kmart isn’t going to be worn by someone who has an interest in the late 70s Manchester music scene. He may have seen Control, heard some covers, even read on Wikipedia that the singer killed himself and, you know, that’s totally emo and soo depressinggggggg. My belief is that much of what passes for Goth is just Metal or Techno dressed up in Goth clothes. But I also realize that this “kids these days” attitude finally proves that I’m an olde and cranky to boot. I wish I could find the article, but there’s an interview in which some early Goth musician expresses horror that people were getting into the scene (in the 80s) who hadn’t read Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. So perhaps the future of Goth is plastic-haired Muppet-faerys (or however they’re spelling it) dancing to Witchhouse and I’ll just be the crank muttering the lyrics to “Amphetamine Logic” into my tea.

Wait for the Blackout: Melancholy in Goth Culture

Posted in Books, Clothes, Culture, Fashion, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by vprime

Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided exposed a prevalent cultural practice in America: that of compulsory positivity. As a society, we expect negative emotions to be cured, suppressed and otherwise cleansed from our neat little psyches so we can continue to be the exceptional individuals it is our God-given right to be.  We believe in the pursuit of happiness as a duty. This manifests itself quite often in the platitudes that one can accomplish anything if only one remains positive and believes in oneself.

What a load of shite.

As Ehrenreich discovers, this cult of positivity leaves people feeling embittered and powerless, as though their losses are the result of insufficient self-esteem. The bind is that one cannot reject the exhortations to be positive without being seen as damaged somehow.  Your negative thoughts are “unhealthy,” “toxic;” you need to “heal.” The cult of positivity permeates our language until there seems to be no acceptable way to be unhappy.  What’s the naturally melancholy person to do with all this relentless cheer? Goth and other darkly-oriented cultures offer more than a language that allows the expression of negativity, they offer an alternate world in which the negative becomes valued. The ability to mine the hidden psychic corners of our society is part of what makes Goth appealing to people of a more thoughtful bent. But the focus on negative emotion is often mistaken for “depression” and misconstrued. My aim here is to explore, albeit perhaps more shallowly than I’d like, the difference between what we label “depression” and melancholy.

I admit this will be a shallow inquiry because I just recently acquired Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and have yet to read it. I am also looking into Emo music, as it gets lumped in with Goth so often when the subject of melancholy in popular culture arises. From what I’ve gleaned so far I’d hazard to say that there are some serious differences and the main thing both aesthetics have in common is that they descend from punk.  I’ll return to the issue of Emo later.

Melancholy Babies

Depression is an illness. It’s something that—we believe—can be treated and cured. In past times, perhaps, depression would have been taken to be the same thing as melancholy, but as our concept of the psyche has grown toward the empirical, we increasingly view depression as an affliction that can be alleviated. Melancholy is an artistic stance. By that I mean that melancholy encompasses a point of view that is primarily fueled by the subject’s penchant for introverted thought. Melancholy describes a personality—one who is introverted, tends toward self-scrutiny, prefers thought and silence to action.    The tendency to turn thoughts inward has yet to be (fully) pathologized. It is possible to be melancholy without being depressed. By that token, plenty of people outside of the melancholy personality may experience depression. One of the defining features of depression is a lack of desire—the desire to connect or engage with the world. If I may get Freudian, what’s being “depressed” is the libido in the sense of the will for life. Melancholy is not an undesiring void. It contains yearning and fascination. Consider Poe’s narrators and their dark obsessions. Pining over the dead Ligeia induces a desire for her return so powerful that the narrator wills her into the dead body of Lady Rowena. There is desire and will of supernatural strength. I might add that a story in which the narrator gives up all hope and passively detaches is not a recipe for narrative success (in most hands) so that may account for the ascendency of depictions of melancholy over true depression in art.

Here’s an example from masters of melancholy, The Cure.

I’m going to refer to the singer here as a “persona” because I want to separate the artist from the art. The situation in this song is that the persona is holding these objects (pictures) that serve as the last remaining connection to a lost other. It appears the other that the song is addressed to could be a former lover, but it’s left intentionally vague. The persona blames himself for driving the other away. In the persona’s memory, the other was “crying for the death of your heart.” Here is an example of the fear of loss of desire.  It’s the other’s lack of emotion that causes him/her to mourn here, and, as the song hints, ultimately drives the other from the persona. The photos have frozen the other in an idealized state. They allow the persona the luxury of “remembering you how you used to be,” instead of dealing with the reality of who the other becomes. The real object of mourning here is not the other him/herself. All we know about the current state of this other is that their relationship with the persona is severed. The song hints (“If only I’d thought of the right words”) that the split is due to the other’s rejection of the persona. The persona is not significant to the other anymore, he tells the other he could “never hold on to your heart.” The pictures fetishize the lost other and serve as the new focus for the persona’s fear of loss. The other has become the pictures. The true fear expressed in the song is that even the desire attached to the pictures will fade.

Mourning the Living

I began to conceive of this separation between melancholy and depression when reading Slavoj Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf, in which he describes the melancholic as one who refuses to complete the process of mourning and reach closure. He writes:  “mourning is a kind of betrayal, the second killing of the (lost) object, while the melancholic subject remains faithful to the lost object, refusing to renounce his or her attachment to it.” In keeping the desire for that which is lost, the melancholic refuses healing. But as Zizek notes, the melancholic is often in mourning for objects which are not yet lost. The melancholic anticipates a state beyond that in which the object is lost to one in which the very desire for the object is gone, and it is the fear that the melancholic will lose all sense of attachment that causes the subject to peremptorily mourn that loss. In other words, melancholy is prompted by a fear of losing desire rather than a fear of losing the object.  Zizek explains: “Therein resides the melancholic’s stratagem: the only way to possess an object which we never had, which was from the very outset lost, is to treat an object that we still fully possess as if this object is already lost. The melancholic’s refusal to accomplish the work of mourning thus takes the form of its very opposite, of a faked spectacle of the excessive, superfluous, mourning for an object even before this object is lost” [italics mine]. In the book, Zizek gives an illustrative example: assume he moves from one city to another. Some time passes and he begins to feel melancholic about his old home, not because he misses that place, but because he finds himself beginning to no longer care about the old city. The knowledge that he will wake up one day with no yearning to return home is what triggers the melancholy mood. The Gothic aesthetic often falls into what Zizek calls “a faked spectacle of the excessive.”  The overwrought and over-serious nature of Goth can look to outsiders like a celebration of depression, but exists to stave off the demands of a world in which negativity itself is a lost object. The Goth mourns for a world of enforced cheer and dead senses, in which art exists only to sell you something and beauty is a cheap, shiny facsimile.

The label “depressed” as attached to the Gothic aesthetic has been one I’ve always rejected, in part, because “depressed” is our way of reducing negativity to a more pedestrian scale.  Gothic music expresses sadness and loss in a manner that seeks artistic merit in negativity. The idea of “depressing” music is also one that puzzles me. I’d consider pop pabulum depressing because it has no redeeming quality. Perky songs on the radio are depressing. Most of what’s on TV is depressing—it saps me of enjoyment and the will to live. Dark music is not depressing, no matter how bleak the subject matter, as long as it attempts to reveal the beauty in negativity.

Cheer Up, Emo Boy.

I said I’d return to emo and I suspect I’ve gone on too long already, so I’ll be brief. Emo and Goth are like chimps and gorillas. They share a common ancestor, but have totally different ways of relating. What I’ve seen of emo tends to focus on the concerns of white male adolescents and their frustrated sense of entitlement. Emo angst is the cry of the unpopular kid who still has some desire to fit in. Emo also seems to be concerned, as most pop music is, with the concept of “authenticity,” as reflected in confessional lyrics and the use of relationship woes as subject matter. These subjects are awarded greater meaning because they originate in the personal lives of the performers. Goth is more theatrical and artificial, often employing ironic distance to hold the listener back from emotional connection with the performer. Siouxsie is an excellent example of this. Her performance of icy seduction is designed to create a cinematic remove from her subject matter. Her emotional expressions are performance. Consider “The Killing Jar” in which she sings in a sighing parody of sensuality while describing sexual molestation. Even though this song is inspired by a true sexual assault, she never loses control of the narrative or expresses helplessness. How many times have you danced to this song describing the assault of a young Susan Ballion? I can see why bands like The Cure and Joy Division have some influence on Emo as their treatment of emotional subject matter appears sincere and authentic. [I have my doubts, but then, I also think Moz does about 90% of his shtick as arch irony.] Goth celebrates femininity, while Emo’s another sausage fest following in Punk’s footsteps. Emo’s adoption of Gothic signifiers such as black eyeliner, androgyny and black clothing may just be due to the perceived greater sensitivity and emotionality of Goths. I admit I need to learn more about Emo to truly flesh out these distinctions. The music is hard for me to take, though. I find it a bit dull.

That’s all the melancholy misanthropy I can muster.

See you on the darkside.