Review Article: Glamorising the Gothic
Spooner, Catherine, Gothic Studies
Gothic: Dark Glamour, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 5 September 2008 - 21 February 2009.
Valerie Steele and Jennifer Park, Gothic: Dark Glamour (New Haven and London: Yale University Press 2008), 160 pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-13694-4
The link between fashion and Gothic is self-evident to most of us, visible everywhere in contemporary culture from magazines and music videos to the clothes worn by our students (and perhaps colleagues), but is explored in an academic context only rarely. New York's Fashion Institute of Technology has rectified this with the first major exhibition devoted to Gothic fashion. Gothic: Dark Glamour has received international press attention, and will almost certainly be regarded as a landmark event by future generations of Gothic scholars.
There is something peculiarly timely about the exhibition. On the catwalks, the Pre-Fall and Autumn/Winter 2008 shows included Gothic-influenced collections by Chanel, Givenchy, Alexander McQueen, Luella Bartley and Gareth Pugh among others. Even Prada, the Italian label renowned for its minimalist, intellectual approach to style, themed a collection around black lace. In the UK, the high street was flooded with little black dresses tricked out with high lace collars and faux-jet beading, and celebrity stylist Gok Wan provided his own version of the trend on Channel 4's Fashion Fix. Meanwhile a rash of publications on Goth subculture have focused academic interest on Goth subcultural style.1 Curator Valerie Steele, one of the world's leading fashion historians, has captured a moment perfectly.
The exhibition is spectacular, an extraordinary synthesis of subcultural style, designer fashion and historical costume displayed with remarkable sensitivity not only to the clothes themselves but also to the underlying themes and imagery of Gothic. On the two separate occasions I visited at the beginning of February 2009, groups of American teens sporting black eyeliner and multiple piercings were gathering beside the exhibition logo ('Gothic' in a suitably spooky font) to have their photos taken, and a group of students sketched a life model in a black taffeta and tulle ball gown posing under a projected full moon. This is not merely an exhibition; it has the feeling of an event.
The exhibition is divided into eleven themed spaces spread across two rooms. The first of these, 'Origins of Gothic Terror' opens with a tableau juxtaposing a Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy dress with a reproduction of Fuseli's iconic painting The Nightmare (fig. 1). The draped folds of silk gauze netting clearly echo the diaphanous nightgown of the painting, but the champagne colour of the Givenchy gown makes the fabric look aged, like dusty cobwebs or a disinterred shroud. The purity of the original is sullied, the distance between the eighteenth century and the present subtly inferred. Gothic style is figured as revenant, as something returning, dishevelled, from a buried past. The leather rope belt round the waist suggests capture, imprisonment, its tight coils working against the loose, ethereal swathes of fabric of which the dress is composed. This tension - between imprisonment and escape, the material or earthly and the spiritual or ghostly, animates the exhibition.
Overall, Dark Glamour is extraordinarily attuned to the nuances of the Gothic mode. The explanatory text states that the exhibition is constructed in the form of a labyrinth, and while this may be suggested rather than literal (the two rooms are not large enough or intricately enough arranged to provoke genuine disori- entation), in general the exhibition space is employed creatively to evoke Chris Baldick's mandate that the Gothic 'should combine a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space . . . to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.' Individual sections of the display stage typically Gothic settings. …