The True Story of the Goth Girlfriend

By Olivia Mastrosimone
Photography by Jill Kligler
Modeled by Olivia Mastrosimone and Avery Kelly

This article has been adapted for the web from our Flux Issue.

If you’ve been on the Internet during the last year, you’ve probably noticed people starting to look more and more like that one goth girl that was the laughing stock of every early 2000s teen movie. Kylie Jenner’s newest makeup line was described as “goth mom chic,” and if either Hadid sister wears something black, there’s a Daily Mail story on Snapchat the next day about how the models are turning to the dark side. Maybe the most prevalent example right now is the duly named, and somewhat unsettling, “goth gf” meme that arrived when Tesla CEO Elon Musk brought pop artist Grimes to the Met Gala. As we enter the last few months of 2018, the term seems unavoidable. So, what does goth really mean, and why is it still important?

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The word “goth” didn’t always just mean Instagram models wearing black lipstick and e-boys on Twitter begging to date them. Goth subculture originated in the seedy runoff of post-punk Great Britain. As punk gradually “sold out” and faded into the mainstream, goth began growing as a musical style and a culture. The end of the 70s brought the birth of goth fashion and beauty, which is where we start seeing the dark eyeshadow, thick eyeliner and red lips that we still associate with gothic beauty today.

London during the 1980s was a breeding ground for all things subversive. Siouxsie Sioux, of Siouxsie and the Banshees, was a gothic pioneer in many respects. No stranger to the underground, Sioux, along with future Banshees member Steven Severin, was a member of the Bromley Contingent, an infamous group of Sex Pistols fans that followed the iconic punk group all over the UK. While she began her career as a groupie, she evolved into a post-punk powerhouse and a style icon, garnering a large musical and stylistic following and eventually mainstream success. Her angular makeup, wild hair and inflammatory fashion provided the template for goth’s safety-pin Victorian style, and the band ’s unconventional sound and dark discord inspired new wave and goth bands for generations.

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Maybe the most influential goth makeup look that came out of the early scene is Siouxsie’s iconic eye. Her jet-black, geometric brows and graphic eyeshadow are a staple of gothic makeup, and definitely not for the faint of heart (or eyeliner). It represents everything goth makeup is: exaggerated and confrontational. In the mid-1980s, when the Banshees and fellow darkly inclined acts like Joy Division and Bauhaus were sporting their teased fringes and ghoulish makeup, mainstream society was neon-clad and freshly permed. The early men and women of the goth scene not only turned heads but also challenged the very idea of beauty with their appearance. This attitude is at the core of goth’s culture and style: we don’t want to fit in, and we’re not even going to try.

As the subculture’s formative bands and figures exploded into the mainstream or fizzled into obscurity, goth’s reaches expanded and its identity became increasingly fragmented. The 1990s and 2000s saw the rise of countless groups that, if not identifying as goth explicitly, were decidedly goth in their attitude and attire. Bands like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry would set the scene for the angst-ridden and goth-inspired acts of the 90s. In our modern context, these bands’ early styles of all-black outfits and moody eye makeup isn’t all that provocative—but just remember that in 1992, when Ministry was dying their hair and releasing their controversial but decisive single “Jesus Built My Hotrod,” the Zubaz-wearing masses were listening to “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton, number six on Billboard’s Top 100 chart that year. As the 90s progressed, goth grew in popularity and continued to subvert culture with its musical style, fashion and beauty.

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Goth’s time in the mainstream peaked with the pop-punk and emo music of the early 2000s and the subsequent birth of “mall goth” culture—A.K.A., the golden age of thin, drawn on eyebrows, kohl eyeliner, and black lipstick. Popular artists like Avril Lavigne and Evanescence cultivated a following of teenage fans, known in the community as “baby bats” who gathered at their local mall’s Hot Topic in their best pre-gothdom attire. This is not to say that these young “mall goths” weren’t as authentic or cool as the goths of the 80s and 90s. If anything, their fashion was just as iconic and makeup just as eccentric as that of the earlier figures. Whether it was 15-year-old punks in middle-America with swooping side bangs wearing black, chain-laden cargo pants and a Slipknot t-shirt, or the 20-somethings of London with their teased mullets and fishnet sleeves, it’s bizarre, it’s confusing, and it’s definitely goth.

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Mainstream goth beauty today seems to has lost some this endearing aggressiveness. Like the best subcultures, it eventually crept its way into popular culture over the years and, while a vibrant underground goth culture remains today, the public’s idea of goth has become skewed. After the pop-punk and emo explosion of the early 2000s, goth’s unique aesthetic and attitude were swallowed up by designers and makeup artists and spat out as $50 Kat Von D eyeshadow palettes and bad memes. Yes, DailyMail is reporting that Kendall Jenner wearing blue eyeshadow and baby buns is goth, and there are people all over the internet saying they want to date Sam Manson from Danny Phantom, but that doesn’t mean the culture is a lost cause. The flawed “goth gf” trend can learn something from its predecessors of the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Reintroducing some of the delightful strangeness of goth’s past styles into a modern beauty context will help break down some of the walls put up around the goth identity. Making statements with your makeup and appearance is empowering and unimpeachably goth. If we’ve learned anything from Siouxsie Sioux or Avril Lavigne, a goth girlfriend isn’t someone that fits into a mold, but someone who breaks it.