American Goth

When I was about fifteen, my mother and I had an argument about clothes that ended with her telling me I wasn’t allowed to be a goth, not because she disapproved of it ideologically but because she felt it was played out and aesthetically insipid. It is a hard blow to a teenager to have their rebellion described as bad pastiche, but it probably saved me from an adulthood in which I wore white pancake makeup
to work, or mistook my clothing choices for a personality.

But we always circle back, don’t we? I read an article recently that suggested that an all black outfit might be a nice thing, and as often happens to me with good fashion writing, a fuse blew in my head. Like most people, I try not to wear the same color shirt as my pants, but I always felt resigned to the idea: “oh, I guess I should buy a shirt in a color, since all my pants are black” or “I guess I should buy pants in a color, since I do still own some black shirts.” There was no love of color, only grudging acceptance.

Well, no more. I purchased three bottles of RIT liquid fabric dye, two of their regular kind in black, and one of their deluxe product, which was only available in charcoal grey. The stuff has to be heated up in a pot on the stovetop, where it makes greasy purple bubbles and inevitably spatters everywhere. Over several days I dumped many brightly colored shirts and sweaters into the brew, huddling over it like a witch until my fingers were stained purple and my spouse and my roommate were complaining about the smell.

I’m happy with the result. It turns out that I really only like four colors: black, dark gray, olive green, and plum. I felt a little somber and ridiculous for the first few days, but I’ve learned not to assume that feeling ridiculous means I’m on the wrong track; I felt ridiculous when I first bought my favorite boots. I started to think about why it was that dressing in black should be ridiculous. Everything was neat and clean, and mostly I was wearing the same kinds of articles I had before: skinny pants with simple shirts or sweaters and a blazer. Why, then, did it feel like a big gesture?

Black is an emotional color, with connotations of both mourning and sexuality. These are both contradictory to the American ethos of separating emotion from work, business from pleasure. I work in a university, and most of the professors I’ve spoken to try to dress in a way that seems “neutral”, that lets their body fade into the background so that students can focus on their words. Making a statement with clothing invites attention to the body in a way that seems like it might interfere with the academic project.

Meanwhile, black is also associated with alternative subcultures: goths, punks, metalheads, and juggaloes all have their own claims to the color black. This association has crept over time into mainstream fashion, and now, black is ubiquitous as a leisure clothing statement that announces that the wearer is in “rebellion mode”. As a result, I’ve seen some young conservatives rebelling against the general rebellious milieu by wearing blue sport coats, checked shirts, Nantucket red trousers and boat shoes out clubbing. While I don’t love the statement “fuck you, I own a boat”, there’s something to be said for questioning the taste that is sold to us as being the ideal “off-duty” outfit. If our “rebellion” is drinking and socializing, then wearing black to go out at night is a less potent symbol than Mr. Rogers changing into his sneakers and cardigan.

Not that I claim to be a particular rebel for dressing like a vampire in a work context. If clothing is rhetoric, than a neat, buttoned-up, black work wardrobe just says “I’m a working adult who might think of myself, quietly, as somewhat rebellious.” The Beloved, a budding social worker and consummate professional dresser, recently read that “wearing clothes you enjoy” is a form of self-care, and began wearing monochromatic looks of all red or all blue, which seems to me like a far bigger innovation. No, mostly I’m delighted to find that as an adult, no one can stop me from doing this small thing that I like. So much of life is mandatory, or optional only at great expense. A low-stakes pleasure, iterated over a week, takes on the feeling of a great luxury.