Goth is the antithesis of subtlety. It is decadence and darkness. Romance and subversion. Gentility and fetishism. To me, goth is Nancy (Fairuza Balk) in 1996’s witchcraft masterpiece The Craft walking step by haunted step on the surface of the sea, wearing a long black skirt with panda eyes and a swinging rosary crucifix. “He blessed me, I can feel him running through my veins,” she cries, possessed. He is not God or Satan (both somewhat goth) but an imaginary Pagan deity (very goth). It’s the twisted brain-worm of an idea that drives the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to madness and murder. It’s Camden, lace parasols and bondage.
In the Never-never Land of the Gothic, its followers are held ransom by the forces of life, death and nature; people decay, hearts break and the mood is: mourning. As Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto infamously said of his staple colour, “Above all, black says this: ‘I don’t bother you – don’t bother me’.” Followers are captured in their teens and held in the sombre embrace of the subculture for the rest of their lives. Once a goth, it would seem, always a goth.
The beginnings of goth are a matter of contention. Were the first goth band 1960s icons The Velvet Underground? It certainly could be said to have begun in the UK in 1978 with the perfect visage of Siouxsie and her Banshees’ first single: Hong Kong Garden. A few months later, The Cure’s Killing An Arab dropped and the genre was off and running. It kicked up into another gear with the 1982 release of Bauhaus’s moody, sprawling Bela Lugosi’s Dead (which they performed in the super-cool opening scene of vampire classic The Hunger) and exploded in the early-to-mid 80s with post-punk bands like Sisters of Mercy, The Birthday Party, Alien Sex Fiend and Christian Death. By the ’90s, American fashion brand Hot Topic and MTV led the expansion of alternative subcultures. It was no longer uncommon to see a black lipstick on sale in a small pharmacy or gloomy teens adorned with skulls and leather congregating on street corners. When, in 2013, the Greater Manchester police force announced they would be treating attacks on members of alternative subcultures, such as goths, the same as those based on identity markers like race and religion, the stand felt strangely archaic – so ubiquitous had the look become.
Rachel Branson, who runs Mosher Mags on Instagram, an archival treasure chest of ’90s and ’00s rock and metal magazines, guesses that at least 50 per cent of their followers adopt a gothic look. “But it’s rare to see a ‘proper’ goth in the wild outside of places like Whitby Goth Weekend,” she told us. Branson recently worked at a sixth form college, which she believes is the true site of convergence for youth subcultures. “I am happy to report that the few goths there still look like they did in the early ’00s, but they combine elements of emo and scene culture from the mid-’00s… with better hair and makeup.”
No generation of young people can resist the allure of sex, death and the occult. Matthew Worley, Professor of Modern History at Reading University, tells me, “Goth remained – and remains – a suitably undying subculture: the aesthetics and preoccupations seem eternal.” But in 2021 it seems a miracle that alternative subcultures are a regenerating force. In a post-subcultural world where “mall goth” is a look teenagers aspire to rather than a diss, where you can buy its props everywhere from Depop to Instagram, who are the current goths? Where did they find each other? And how do they define the term?
Sarah, 26 and family – Mia, 23, Joe, 17, Melissa, 17, Naomi, mother, 56 (pictured above)
Sarah: I tell my mum her looks are quite iconic. She stands out – I don’t want to be offensive but [I mean] compared to other women her age or mums. She’s quite wild and I’ve always really respected that.
Naomi: I’m not that wild, really.
S: No, I just think you’re true to yourself and you don’t really care that much.
N: I tend to like quite wacky stuff. I wasn’t encouraged as a younger person to be creative. After I had kids I realised how much I resented being pushed into the sciences during my education, so that’s where I’ve come from with all my children: if they’ve got a creative side, it’s really important they explore that. Sarah’s similar to me in that she’ll push herself to try to create something unusual, but obviously, she’s more gifted than me.
S: You don’t know that.
N: I’m a cake decorator now and I always say to her it’s very organic the way the product can end up. Sometimes by making a mistake, it can come out better. But Sarah would never conform, even at two or three. Nursery teachers would get really cross. Her behaviour was seen as negative rebellion, a stubborn streak.
S: I wasn’t necessarily being naughty, I was just given instructions and I’d never want to do it. I started getting into goth around 12 because I’d been to Camden once or twice with my parents to buy clothes. This is embarrassing to talk about but I’d often get caught by Mum while wearing black lipstick.
N: I really didn’t want her to be a goth.
S: She really didn’t like it. One summer I was wearing long black sleeves and she threatened to cut up all my black clothes if I didn’t start wearing something a bit appropriate. And she took me to Hollister…
N: It was my worst nightmare. When I see older goths, ladies my age being goth… I just didn’t want her to get into it and never get out of it.
S: But I’m not a costume goth. I have my own interpretation of goth. A lot of people who are goth follow a lot of rules, and I don’t necessarily want to do that.
Joe: I’m not a fashion expert [the sisters laugh] but I feel what Sarah’s doing is cool and unique compared to what people my age are doing on Instagram. I don’t use social media or listen to current music but I’m bonding a lot with Sarah over music, actually, because she likes Papa Roach and Linkin Park, cringey early 2000s nu-metal.
S: We come up with imaginary band names together.
J: If I am trying to look nice or cool, I’ll ask Sarah, ‘How do I look?’ because I do very much consider her an expert on fashion. At least compared to me, people say I dress like a 40-year-old Dad.
Mia: Sarah was a lot of different people growing up and being into subculture was part of that: she was emo, then she was a goth and this and that. We say that My Chemical Romance is the Venn diagram between all four of us – and that started with Sarah. She has had an influence over all of us, whether that’s music or film or something else. I enjoy looking at Sarah’s Instagram because it’s like looking at Tim Burton’s daughter’s Instagram.
Melissa: It’s different for me and Sarah than it is for her and Mia. The age gap is bigger: she was doing her A‑Levels in boarding school so wasn’t there a lot. But seeing Sarah express herself has allowed me to be more alternative but the other way. I tend to wear bright eyeshadow and funky earrings. Last year you had Sarah on one side of the house blasting metal and making her Tim Burton creations and on the other side you’d have me blasting lo-fi hip-hop and doing pastel anime stuff. It’s quite funny…there’s a link but it’s a yin-yang thing.
S: I like anime too, just of a very different persuasion.
Joe: But if you want to talk about anime, I’m the anime guy.
S: Joe. So there are things that bring us together.
Melissa: We all have a pair of Dr Martens, which we would’ve picked up from Sarah, and we all have a biker jacket.
S: That’s come from Mum though – she has a biker jacket.
Mia: I’m a filmmaker and an aspiring author. I’ve come to Sarah for help with aesthetics for specific characters before and she gave me the references that I needed.
Melissa: She’s definitely a helpful resource to have in the family.
S: Thanks guys. It’s a bit grim but being in lockdown has made me question everything about the subculture: it’s taken away the social aspect of it, music and clubbing. Who am I and why am I interested in this and doing this? Is it changing and where has it gone? The subculture’s definitely not dead – look on Instagram or TikTok, it’s absolutely massive – but it’s got me thinking about the relevance of subculture now.
My goal is to either dress up as a Sabrina the Teenage Witch character or a gothic Bratz doll. But my style only started when I started living outside of Uruguay because if I wore a dress there I would get stopped in the street or people would scream and shout at me from vans, and take pictures of me. I identify as non-binary so everyday I’m allowing myself to be more myself which includes the clothes I wear. Clothes really help you if you’re struggling mentally. I have Body Dysmorphic Disorder as well so I dress how I need to so sometimes it’s skirts and dresses, other times baggy jeans and overalls and workwear. Sometimes I wear all black and other days I’m a rainbow.
I’m an only child so [I] discovered everything through the internet. I first went to a goth night, Slimelight [in Islington], the longest-running goth night in the UK, with my best friend from college. This friend was the first alternative person that I’d met – she was a bit cybergoth [goth x raver x punk] – and she took me under her wing. It was my 18th birthday and I was really nervous and threw up before we even got there I was so scared.
After that, I was just going out a lot and started getting asked to host events, too. It doesn’t involve a lot; they put your name on the flyer to draw people in. It’s weird when you think about it – like being an influencer, people know you and recognise your name.
All the events have been running a really long time and a lot of goths are old and have been around for ages too. At Slimes there’ll always be the same people so you’ll always know someone. There are people who snuck in when they’re underage and also people in their 60s and everyone’s talking to each other. We’re actually a very diverse group. Just because someone dresses a certain way doesn’t mean they think one thing or act one way.
When I first became a goth my style was very strict. Black hair for five years got a bit boring. The roots were awful too because I’m naturally blonde so it kept looking like I was bald. I’d buy this root cover-up spray so that nobody knew. It also wasn’t super me and I felt embarrassed about loving cute stuff and collecting plushies – I have an annual pass for Disneyland Paris so get a lot of them there – so I started mixing ‘goth’ and ‘cute’ together.
I studied for an Art BTEC but hated it because art college had a lot of restrictions so [I] dropped out. I was moving to Australia but because of coronavirus I couldn’t. Apparently, Australia doesn’t really have goths anymore so I thought it’d be fun. I’d be the only one.
My mum studied art and when I was a child back in China – we’d just sit on the floor and paint on the wall together. I remember looking on YouTube at Alexander McQueen’s shows and it just shocked me how beautiful they were, so I decided I wanted to get into fashion. I mostly listened to a lot of Chinese rock music but when I came to England at 14, I listened to Hole and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I’m heavily influenced by Vampira and Elvira, too, that’s why I have very thin and sharp eyebrows. I didn’t have that courage to express myself as goth when I was living in a small town in the North of England, but when I moved to London I just didn’t care anymore. The more people I’m finding like me here, the more my relationship with the goth subculture is strengthening. Still, goth is not as much of a subculture as it was and that’s a good thing – it means it’s developing and changing.
Ananya and Dylan
Ananya: We met when I was visiting Berlin from Copenhagen and we fell in love, so I moved here. Dylan showed me a lot of older goth music that I found really cool. There are so many really, really goth-looking people in Berlin.
Dylan: The look is just mainstream stylish here now. I think because [the nightclub] Berghain is such a force in the city. People heard years ago that you get in more if you wear black – it was just a myth – so fucking everyone just wears black. It’s weird and it has absolutely nothing to do with goth.
A: Techno culture is edgy and so is goth culture, I guess. They’re related. I wouldn’t want to necessarily label myself as goth.
D: I’m comfortable with it [both laugh].
A: I don’t think I 100 per cent live up to it… I don’t know why. Maybe being ‘goth’ is just a feeling.
D: I know what it is musically but I don’t know what ‘goth’ is more than that.
A: Sometimes I feel really goth when I’m sitting alone in a dark room with candles, listening to The Cure.
D: We do that quite often.
A: It’s a specific vibe sometimes. For people who are a bit older, it’s very tied to the music and then for people younger, even younger than me, it’s a look more than a culture. Dylan is what I think of when I think of goth.
D: It was Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails at first. Once I was old enough to get into goth clubs, I got more into industrial dance stuff.
A: I grew up listening to Cocteau Twins. My mum really liked that ethereal kind of music. Both mine and Dylan’s mum played them to us in the womb.
D: My mum’s a hairdresser and she played in some kind of Depeche Mode rip-off band when she was younger. Remember when we went on a trip to Barcelona and I got a Christian Death back patch for my jacket?
A: I feel like that’s goth.
Freya, 23, Val, 20, Jasper, 19, Krissie, 20, Samuel, 29
Jasper: Apparently being goth in 2020 is about seeing someone who looks cool then realising they’re some kind of TikTok-famous E‑Boy and being thoroughly disappointed. Being part of the scene is also hard when you realise your favourite frontman has just turned into a mumbling old egg and you’ll never be alive in the 1980s to see him live.
Val: I’m a goth part-time: the ethos of finding beauty in things traditionally seen as ugly really appeals to me. My approach is taking bits and pieces of the philosophy and look of different subcultures and fitting them together like a puzzle.
Freya: I don’t self-define as anything but ultimately have no control over how I am perceived by other people. I’m just trying to have fun.
Krissie: I often struggled with merging my goth side with my Afro Caribbean side. My mum is a Christian so due to lack of knowledge she was a bit sceptical, but my dad was more extreme. He used to call me the devil. They’re more accepting of who I am now.
Samuel: Having a birthmark on my face and being gay on top of that, I relate a lot to the goth community, where people who feel outside can find acceptance. I find that [is true] with the rave scene, the queer scene and at punk gigs, as well, which all have had a huge influence on me since I moved to London from France and Sweden.
Photography — Markn
Photo assistant — Brigita Žižytė
Styling & Creative direction — Sophie Gaten
Hair - Sarah Jo Palmer @ Management Artists, Using MR SMITH Hair Assistant — Essi Karjalainen
Makeup - Mattie White @ Saint Luke, using BYREDO
Production — Andre Augusto
Production Assistant — Hannah Rose
Casting — Ikki Casting @ The Art Board
Casting Assistant — Ananya Liva Nisbet
Models Sarah + Family Ananya, Dylan Liwenxuan Jess, Franco, Freyja, Samuel, Jasper, Val, Santa — Stephen
Header image – Sarah wears dress by Gucci, chain belt by Fleet Ilya, shoes New Rock, rings Louise Konrad & models own, necklace models own. Family wear all outfits models own