Sep 192008

Valerie Steele, author of her excellent book on the corset’s history, has a new offering called Gothic: Dark Glamour, along with a museum exhibition which touches on the intersection with fetish fahion. From Cintra Wilson’s NY Times review:

THE origins of contemporary goth style are found in the Victorian cult of mourning.

“Victorians had a joke when women got into fashionable mourning dress — they called it ‘the trap rebaited.’ ” Ms. Steele said, showing me one of the highlights of the F.I.T. exhibition: a 1905 Victorian cult-of-mourning gown by Desbuisson & Hudelist that was off-the-shoulder, had a plunging neckline and was covered with matte-black sequins.

The show also makes a healthy foray into what Ms. Steele calls the “diabolism, dandyism and decadence” of Dracula. “Just as the devil is the prince of darkness, the dandy is the black prince of elegance,” she explained. “And the paradigm of the gothic man is a dandy vampire aristocrat.”

The vampire introduces the idea of the “erotic macabre” into gothic fashion. There are stunning examples in the show of vampiric sex appeal — e.g., a voluminous blood-red gown by John Galliano for Dior, printed with a Marquis de Sade quotation: “Is it not by murder that France is free today?” (Which, accessorized with its huge chain and cross made of railway spikes, would inspire even the Easter Bunny to absinthe and Emocore.)

One display acknowledges the fetish culture’s influence on goth (“kinky nihilism,” as Ms. Steele describes it): buckled PVC corsets and other snazzy bondage accouterments in addition to the usual Morticia Addams styles.

But to Wendy Jenkins, vampires represent more than just a hot batch of spooky formalwear. They provide a romantic narrative for sympathizing with her own perceived abnormalities. She wrote to me: “I think vampires are freeking [sic] sweet because they have such true emotions that no mere mortals can express! I too at times think I am a vampire being with my hate of garlic and how my eyes r sensitive to light.”

This sense of bathos-dripping, emotional fragility draws no small ridicule to the idea of “goth.” The word still brings to mind Anne Rice à la Renaissance Faire, moody bodice-ripper connotations, as well as ruffled shirts, tarot cards and sad girls who wistfully change their names to Pandora and Esmeralda (a tendency finally ridiculed to death in the “Saturday Night Live” sketch Goth Talk, with its teenage hosts, Azrael Abyss, “Prince of Sorrows,” and his friend, Circe Nightshade).

This touches on the influence of sensibility on both gothic and BDSM: that interior subjective experience matters, whether it is the emotional states of melancholy and deprivation, or the physical states of pain and distress.

I just finished reading Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman’s Miracleman series from the 1980s. Very briefly, Superman-analog finally kills Lex Luthor-analog and evil Superboy-analog, then builds a left-wing utopia on Earth. The closest thing to a counter culture left are the Bates, people who adopt the black crew-cut-and-spit-curl of the late Johnny Bates (aka “Kid Miracleman”, a sidekick turned mass murderer), along with black leather jackets and a few other items and music styles. One story shows a kid who keeps a tiny figure of Bates on a chain around his neck, and thinks Bates will return one day, though he admits Bates would kill his imitators first if he did.

Later stories suggest that the image of Bates has diminished to little more than a hairstyle, but there are subtle hints that Bates himself is still out there and could return some day. (Only the series’ end and legal disputes over copyright have forestalled it.)

If you live in Miracleman’s utopia, growing up to see his name and face everywhere and on everything, knowing that there will never be a war or famine or plague, what is there to discover? What is there to choose to become? You may attach yourself to the only credible counter-force in the world, the only thing that ever challenged Miracleman. You gain an identity from that, the way people distanced themselves from Victorian sentimentality by modeling themselves on Lord Byron. We take our heroes where we can get them, and the line between hero and villain can get very fine.

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