AP Fashion Writer, New York
Coco Chanel once said that fashion has to die to live.
She was talking figuratively about the idea of seasonal renewal, killing off old styles so that new ones can emerge and grow. However, a new exhibit called "Gothic: Dark Glamour" at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology takes a more literal look at how the theme of death has been carried through clothes over many years.
Other than the obvious black – fashion’s favorite color – designers have repeatedly turned to symbols of the dark side, ranging from the distortion of the body, to dark veils and the skull-and-crossbone motif.
"There is a dark romanticism to the look of goth, which gives it a broader appeal than those who would identify themselves as goths," says Valerie Steele, chief curator at the museum. "And why does it appeal to so many different people? Because this is different from the banality of everyday life."
Steele has assembled scores of outfits, many by Jean-Paul Gaultier, John Galliano, Ricardo Tischi and Rick Owens – who was himself a goth at one point – among others into a dramatic display that emphasizes haunted labyrinths, ruined castles and cemeteries. She has put accessories, such as bat-themed brooches and death masks, in a cabinet of curiosities. Provocative goth-fashion photos by Sean Ellis line the walls.
One is easily reminded that decadence, epitomized by Theirry Mugler’s high-neck opera ensemble made of faux monkey fur, is rooted in social decay.
Goth fashion can probably be traced to the 18th century, when Fuseli painted "The Nightmare," says Steele. It depicted a look of "gothic" that would eventually move the bar of what gothic was perceived to be: Instead of the medieval association with superstition, this was on the edge of psychotic.
In fashion, it evolved into the styles of the Victorian cult of mourning and of Dracula, which flourished alongside a complementary explosion in literature that concentrated on grotesque, mysterious and deadly themes.
"Vampires," notes Steele, "is the perfect example of sexy and scary that fashion loves. It all happens in the dark: a sexy encounter with a deadly stranger."
Some styles, though, can be perverse. The goth mourning clothes of the 19th century further exaggerated to the point of absurdity the bustle women of the day were wearing, and, fast-forward to 2007, metal hardware were added to couture gowns by young London-based designer Kei Kagama to show what could happen in a high-tech laboratory gone awry.
Remember, though, this is fashion, which largely exists to draw a response from passers-by. Steele compares the gothic look to the car accident you can’t ignore as you whiz by or scary movie you can’t look away from.
"Goth style is so theatrical and over the top," says Steele. "Designers are playing with fear. How scared are you really when you’re watching a horror film? You know the girl should never go into the basement but she always does and you’re always watching her."
Laura Mulleavy, co-designer of Rodarte with her sister Kate, says their long, draped gown worthy of Morticia Addams that is included in "Gothic: Dark Glamour" was inspired by Japanese horror films. The specific shade of red that is splattered onto a black-and-white ground is supposed to evoke blood in water.
"We didn’t purposely do it as goth … but I know how it would definitely fit into that genre," says Mulleavy.
"I read gothic literature, Southern goth, English goth, so this is right up my alley," she adds. "I’m not a goth myself, I’m more of a gray T-shirt kind of girl, but I love the spirit of it, maybe in spirit I’m goth."
Still, dark, brooding or bloody movies might seem an odd inspiration at first blush for a high-end fashion label that has been making inroads on Hollywood red carpets, but, says Mulleavy, the films are so visual, especially Japanese ones that blur the lines of good and evil.
"With the Japanese films, it’s more of a tradition of kabuki theater and the relationship with the ghost and spirit – and it’s mostly a female spirit with something to say," she says.
Another couture gown in the exhibit, a 2007 Alexander McQueen with a jeweled Christian cross set askew on a black strapless bodice, was inspired by witchcraft and religious persecution. McQueen is said to be a distant descendant of Elizabeth Howe, a woman executed as a result of the Salem, Mass., witch trials in 1692.
Other looks that straddle glamour and goth include a Chanel gown by Karl Lagerfeld with a spider-web pattern made of feathers and beads, a high-neck Victorian corset gown by Olivier Theyskens and a "blob-top" cape by Hussein Chalayan made of carpet fibers that Steele describes as the embodiment of claustrophobia and vertigo.
Steele says casual observers might think high fashion has taken cues from the post-punk goth club scene – and, in fact, the exhibit does pay homage to the 1980’s London hot spot Bat Cave – but true gothic style is far more elegant.
"Looking at Victorian mourning dresses, images of sorcery and vampires and crumbling castles, major high fashion designers like McQueen don’t have to go to the club kids for inspiration," she says.
Images courtesy of www.fitnyc.edu.