A Study of Gothic Subculture

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Updated 3-12-2009
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Common Culture


Different cities tend have their own slight differences in their common Goth fashions. I have been to clubs and/or concerts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, San Diego, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Chicago, and Salt Lake City. There are definitely differences between the scenes in these cities, especially in the way people dance and the general style. These common things are merely the ones I could come up with offhand, this list is not exhaustive. These are just things that generally tend to be popular with Goths. It is not a complete list of the common cultural quirks; if anyone would like to send me more observations on fashion, books, or movies, e-mail me at

As is true for all people, there are some who reflect on their attitudes, actions and motivations, and there are some who don't. There are those who aren't aware of the meaning of the symbols they wear. You'll find many people wearing a cross, pentagram, or ankh because they think it looks cool. Perhaps, they see someone else with it and are doing it to fit in. It becomes a matter of fashion rather than awareness of what the symbol means and why they wear it. Not everyone clearly understands their actions and habits or the reasons behind them.


Some of the popular gothic style traits:

  • anything black (White or any dark colors like navy blue and deep red are also popular but less common.)
  • silver jewelry
  • pallor (This could be because some Goths want a sort of undead look; or they want to embody the Victorian aesthetic that says pale skin is a sign of nobility; or because tanning causes skin cancer. In general, Goths view paleness as much more aesthetically pleasing than being tan, whether or not they have a reason why.)
  • dyed hair (Black, very light bleached blonde, red, or purple are fairly common.)
  • black and white makeup -- white foundation, black lipstick, black eyeliner
  • thin, plucked eyebrows or shaved off and drawn in eyebrows
  • bondage and fetish fashion -- leather, PVC, latex, rubber, vinyl and bondage gear, corsets
  • crushed velvet or regular velvet
  • poet's shirts -- a few ruffles around the cuff, the collar, and the front (They are usually white.)
  • chokers -- a dog leash with spikes, a bondage collar, or a velvet ribbon tied around the neck
  • ankh (Egyptian symbol for everlasting life)
  • the Eye of Ra (also, Eye of Horus, an Egyptian symbol. The symbol's popularity with Goths is partly due to the fact that it is on the cover of the "Vision Thing" CD by The Sisters of Mercy.)
  • pentacle (The pentagram is a five pointed star -- a pagan symbol for fire, earth, air, water, spirit. The pentacle is basically a pentagram with a circle around it. These terms are often used synonymously. Since the pentacle is associated in some people's mind with Satansim, some Goths may wear a pentacle to shock people, or as a part of their Theatrical Satanism.)
  • wearing lingerie that shows (garters, teddy, bustier, slip, camisole)
  • opera-style capes or cloaks
  • opera length gloves, either satin or latex (shorter length gloves as well, usually vinyl)
  • crosses (Christian symbolism)
  • fishnet tights or shirts
  • black and white horizontal striped tights like the Wicked Witch of the West
  • chains (as a belt, necklace, part of the outfit, whatever)
  • spikes/studs (usually attached to a leather jacket or to a collar, belt or bracelets)
  • tattoos (depends on the person)
  • piercings (Usually not as excessive as punks, goths might have a few piercings, if any. Tongue, nose and nipple piercings seem most common. It depends on the person.)
  • pointy toed shoes, buckle boots, high heels, combat boots or Doc Martens
  • wearing band T-shirts, having band stickers on your car, notebook etc.
  • a short A-line haircut or ratted out, hairsprayed, chaotic hair, sometimes hair extensions
  • a leather jacket (often with designs painted on it), black trenchcoat, black vinyl raincoat-looking jacket, or velvet jacket
  • a box (A cross between a small purse and a lunchbox, usually black with silver hinges and a briefcase-like handle. They are usually decorated with band stickers. Guys and girls alike carry them.)
  • Some Goths tend to look like: Robert Smith (of The Cure) -- ratted up hair, smudged red lipstick, black makeup for eyeshadow; Siouxsie Sioux (of Siouxsie and the Banshees) -- short black ratted hair (or a sleek A-line haircut) and the makeup done very precisely with pointed angles; Death (the Sandman comic book character) -- designs drawn around the eyes, tousled black hair, always wearing an ankh; Eric Draven (character in the comic book and movie The Crow) -- white face with black vertical lines drawn above and below the eyes, black lipstick drawn extended past the edge of the lips in long smiley face sort of lines, black trenchcoat; Andrew Eldrich (of the Sisters of Mercy) -- always wearing sunglasses, short slick black hair, leather pants, a leather jacket with an open shirt; Bettie Page (1950's bondage pinup queen) -- long wavy black hair with short, curled-under bangs, very thin drawn in eyebrows, and dark red lipstick.
  • Vampire archetype -- Lestat or Louis from Anne Rice's novels The Vampire Lestat and Interview with the Vampire or a Dracula influenced look. The vampire archetype look also contains some commonalties with the vampire-free Victorian aesthetics: elaborately designed hair, ruffled shirts, long skirts, velvet, opera capes, corsets, vests. Punk archetype -- ripped tights, chains and spikes, a leather jacket, boots, ratted hair, defiant attitude. Tortured artist archetype -- a bohemian influence, wearing all black, maybe kinda beatnik, wearing sunglasses all the time, maybe a beret, thin, tired-looking, a notebook carried around at all times, can be seen reading alone in coffee shops. The tortured artist look may be a little more avant-garde, but it is not quite as clearly defined fashion-wise. It is made more by how someone acts than how they look.

For guys, some common Goth looks are:

    A fishnet shirt and vinyl or leather pants with some sort of boots and other various accessories.

    A white shirt (sometimes with the collar folded up to cover the neck), black pants, a black vest, boots or dress shoes.

    Some of the guys will wear makeup, skirts, corsets or heels. It's not really meant to be cross-dressing because they are not actually trying to look like women. Gothic tends to be a very androgynous thing, where some of the straight guys like to look or dress feminine, either to challenge social gender barriers, to show that they have an open mind, or as just a fashion thing.

For girls, some common Goth looks are:

    A cleavage-enhancing corset top with a long, flowing or tutu-like skirt.

    A crushed velvet dress with either boots or heels.

    A fishnet shirt with a black bra underneath, a bondage belt (or some other type) and either 1) a short vinyl skirt 2) a long velvet skirt 3) tight leggings or stirrup pants usually made of vinyl or crushed velvet.

    Fishnet stockings with a vinyl dress, bondage gear, high heels or heel boots.

Books etc.

It's hard to say what kind of books that Goths like because it falls into such a broad range. Many Goths are well-read in "classic" literature, religion, philosophy, history, and politics. It all depends on the inclination of that person.

Vampire, fantasy, horror, sci-fi novels

  • Anne Rice novels, especially the Vampire Chronicles: Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, Queen of the Damned, The Tale of the Body Thief etc.
  • Poppy Z. Brite novels: Lost Souls etc.
  • H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury (sci-fi horror and fantasy)


  • Dostoyevsky - Notes from the Underground
  • Dante - The Inferno
  • Orwell - 1984
  • Stoker - Dracula
  • Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron (Romantic-era poetry)
  • Everything by Edgar Allen Poe


  • Permission
  • Ghastly
  • Blue Blood
  • Industrial Nation
  • Carpe Noctem
  • Propaganda

Comic books

  • "Sandman" comic books (especially the "Death: the High Cost of Living" comics)
  • "The Crow" comics
  • "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" and "Squee" both by Jhonen Vasquez

Goth-friendly record labels:

  • Cleopatra
  • Projekt
  • Tess
  • Anubis


It might be an interesting tidbit to note that Tim Burton is the director for several of the movies I've listed here. He seems to have the knack for the gothic aesthetic in a film.

    The Hunger - a vampire flick with David Bowie and Susan Sarandon. Its opening scene shows a view of a dance club with a caged Peter Murphy singing "Bela Lugosi's Dead."

    Rocky Horror Picture Show - a cult classic musical with Tim Curry as a flamboyant transvestite. A little too strange to be described. Most small independent film theaters will have a Rocky Horror showing night now and again where people come dressed as the characters. There is a stage area where players mimic the movie as it plays. A caller leads the standard interjected addition of lines, and the audience participates in the scenes by throwing rice at the wedding scene, squirting squirtguns during the scene where it's raining, dancing during the "Time Warp" song etc. Quite a fun event.

    Hellraiser (and all of the sequels) - Some horror flicks hit it big with Goths, some don't care for them at all.

    Dracula - from Bela Lugosi's version to the Francis Ford Coppola version, it tends to be a big classic (as well as the book).

    Heathers - an eighties movie with Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, and Shannen Doherty that offers a black humor about high school and killing.

    The Crow - starring Brandon Lee (who was accidentally killed during filming). A classic truly for its dark themes of murder, revenge, love, urban decay. Dark aesthetics in the film with shots of a graveyard and an elaborate church.

    Edward Scissorhands - with Johnny Depp, a movie about a misfit with an unusual hedge-trimming genius who seems a bit out of place in the picture perfect suburbia.

    The Nightmare Before Christmas - catchy tunes like "This Is Halloween" and classic characters like Jack the Pumpkin King and Sally make it a big hit with Goths.

    Beetlejuice - with Geena Davis, Winona Ryder and Michael Keaton. Winona Ryder's character is a Goth classic, the spooky girl Lydia.

    Batman Returns - I think that the wintertime atmosphere and the sleek sexy fetish inspired catwoman costume make this movie gothic. It had a darker feel than all of the following sequels.

    The Craft - 1996 film with Neve Campbell. This wasn't that good of a movie, and it has more to do with witchcraft than gothic. However, it is one of the few movies that has a goth chick as a main character, not that she is portrayed in a realistically Goth way.

    Gothic - not what you might first think, its true to the original gothic literature movement. It is a movie about the night that Mary Shelley first came up with the idea for Frankenstein. Full of ghost stories, hallucinations, horror and madness.

    The Lost Boys - with Corey Haim, Corey Feldman and Keifer Sutherland, it's one of the classic 80's teenage renegade vampire flicks, with an even better soundtrack.

    A Clockwork Orange - A twisted film based on the novel concerning society, violence, the government, mind control and conditioning.

Misc. things Goths tend to like

  • art (Most Goths are dabblers in the creative arts, e.g. photography, music, painting, writing, drawing etc.)
  • the humanities in general (many have an interest in literature and history, philosophy etc.)
  • H. R. Giger ("Alien," biomechanic fantasy artwork) and Salvador Dali (Surrealist artist)
  • clove cigarettes
  • cats
  • candles
  • fairies
  • gargoyles
  • coffee, "going to coffee" -- getting together to drink coffee and socialize at a diner or coffee shop
  • Christmas lights -- the miniature kind strung all around the bedroom
  • spider webs, spiders -- spider web design on tights, shirt, jewelry
  • skulls, skeletons -- in jewelry, on tights or clothing
  • graveyards -- especially to take pictures or have picnics
  • coffins -- most often a coffin shaped box (the cross between a lunch box and purse) or jewelry holder
  • other such spooky things
  • Egyptian symbols, Christian symbols, Pagan symbols -- cross, ankh, pentacle etc.