Within this article, I wish to strip the statement ‘Gothic’ to its very roots – and explore the role that Gothic as a literary form has played upon its transformation into fashion. This continuance of my ‘Fairy Tale Gothic’ article late last year focuses upon the darker side of Gothic.
The Gothic genre emerged during the Romantic period, and worked to question the limits of the sublime, human daring to ‘play God’ via science, and also served as an outlet upon which to project the horrors of the French Revolution within supernatural context. Radcliffe defined the role of terror as to ‘expand the soul and awaken the faculties to a high degree of life’, which, I argue, proposes a relationship between pleasure and pain. Whilst the sublime (particularly Burke’s sublime) causes an individual to feel overwhelmed by the natural world, the Gothic sublime employs terror to penetrate the individual’s security with the unknown. Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is an example of a novel rife with terror. Terror is all the more discomforting because it projects the unknown and vile into and onto the known: Frankenstein’s monster is an automaton – a ‘living-dead’ creature made from charnel house bones. He is the amalgamation of both life and death, as he is created from death (which itself is oxymoronic and thus horrifyingly baffling). The pleasure, or awe derived from his depiction, and the sympathetic portrayal of the monster, questions the readers’ understanding of good and evil. Because the Gothic was terrifying, it was seductive. The unknown was made accessible, and from it sprung the birth of the sensational novel.
I wish to focus, however, on the rematerialising of the Gothic in the late Victorian period. By this time, the ‘Gothic’ had come to denote the opposite of European Western culture – Protestant England was forging itself as the centre of the modern world, and ‘Goth’ came to mean both medieval past and oriental ‘otherness.’ Disordered, dark and labyrinthine, the Gothic was concerned with the ghastly and supernatural. Why, do you ask, did the Victorians lap this up? As Lockhurst has established, ‘dark forces rushed into and insidiously undermined the order of everyday life.’ Transgressions of Victorian normality evoked delight and fear simultaneously: the novel’s fantasy invoked normality. By this, I mean that the Gothic tale invoked law, by breaking it, just as it insisted sexual normality, by dreaming up perversity. By projecting the unknown onto the known, distinctions could be made between what was right and evil within the Victorian period. Lockhurst maintains that the genre was simultaneously subversive and conservative.
The Gothic played to Victorian fears. It involved the pollution of boundaries. As Darwin was establishing the origin of man, the Gothic tale took the opportunity to evoke fear, by working to Darwin’s theory of man’s animal roots, and exploring primitive taboos about what it means to be human. The ghost story, depicting a body not lain to rest, indicates the stresses concerning crumbling Victorian feudal and aristocratic power, which, though it was being diffused by middle class progression, was harboured by the Gothic as still existing in vengeful ghost form. The labyrinthine haunted house worked to terrorise familial tranquillity, by questioning lineage, and dreaming up fantastical skeletons in the closets, and dark secrets.
The horrifying yet compelling nature of the Gothic exists today. The return of the vampire, and Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ still, I argue, emphasises social discomfort with the unknown and uncontrollable – humans feel threatened by that which can supersede them in terms of power. Yet, doubly, the popularity of ‘True Blood’ and ‘Twilight’ evidences an existing glamorous and seductive connotation of the ‘other’ or ‘unknown.’ The Gothic subculture, emerging in the eighties, takes inspiration from Gothic literature and horror film to an extreme: ‘corpse paint’ and black wardrobes have become culturally synonymous to the social group. Alexander McQueen himself has been named as practising haute Gothic. His fall 2009 collection depicted elaborate black ruffled gowns, lace parasols and cobweb veils. Morbid and eroticised, Gothic fashion mirrors the dualistic compulsion and repulsion of the literary genre. The veils analogise the unknown, ambiguous atmosphere of the Gothic – where the walking-dead roam unexplained, as explored within Henry James’s ‘Turn of the Screw.’ Gothic fashion, in its heightened extreme, attempts to create an uncanny automaton – the human ought look inhuman, doll or corpse like, and beautiful but fearful. Pale faces and violently red or black lips eroticise the fearful.
Such haute couture interpretations, or extremist copying’s are breathtaking within the photographical work of Tim Walker – his ‘Guinevere Van Seenus’ is a siren-like doll, breathing the uncanny animation of life, yet veiled obscurely by a funereal black veil, as though she refuses to reveal the secrets of her deathly existence. A more accessible exploration has thankfully been explored by McQueen’s 2008 fall collection. McQueen intricately laces silvery cobwebs upon startlingly black gowns, to signify the labyrinthine entrapping nature of the Gothic (as it transports readers to another realm and seduces them as a black widow seduces her prey).
Embrace dark feathers (to portray the questioning of human-animal relationship), lace and decadent jewels (to emphasise lavish decadence of Victorian Gothic revival), and floating chiffon (to epitomise the gothic femme-fatale).