Something of the night: Designers go back to gothic

Maybe it's economic gloom, or just an overdose of florals, but designers have gone spookily gothic, says Susannah Frankel

Caw! Caw! Kohl-rimmed eyes, ebony lips, ivory skin and big, black hair. Fishnet, ribbon, latex and lace. Glittering gold crucifixes, crisp white shirts, skinny leather trousers and raven feathers. Beefeaters. Well, maybe not the beefeaters. There is no denying the fact, however, that as the autumn/winter season takes hold, it's good to be gothic once more.

Just as the word "gothic" itself has many connotations, the look comes in many different guises. For gothic fashion read everything from dark Victoriana (Alexander McQueen), to late-1970s club kitten (Luella), and from religious iconography used as embellishment (Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy) to Camden Market (Emma Cook).

A gothic vein is nowhere more evident, though, than at Giles Deacon, where models at his London show had their heads wrapped in black veils that covered their faces entirely. It was as if they'd walked straight out of an Edgar Allan Poe story, and, specifically, according to the designer at least, The Masque of the Red Death.

Backstage after the show, Deacon told the American Vogue website that he had been thinking of that horrific tale, and went on to précis it, and the look it inspired, with characteristic bluntness: "People partying in a castle with everyone dying outside. Femme fatale in a gothic disco." Nice and easy this style most certainly is not.

Instead, resolutely sombre colours – midnight-blue, chartreuse, aubergine and, of course, black – knitwear spun out of cobwebs of fine silk, and even the odd floor-sweeping hooded cape all speak of a woman who is both shrouded in mystery and not to be messed with. Deacon explains that he was looking for a change following his spring/summer season, which focused on all things pink, floral and generally sugar-and-spicy. His collection this season is certainly something of a departure from that. "I wanted to get rid of all that girlishness," he says, "and to do something much more structured, more womanly and sharp."

And – cue crashing of thunder and flickering of lightning – the story doesn't stop there. Next month, Gothic: Dark Glamour opens at the museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, showcasing clothing courtesy of, among others, John Galliano, Gareth Pugh, Rick Owens, Ann Demeulemeester, Comme des Garçons, Yohji Yamamoto, and Tisci and McQueen. The exhibition, remarkably, is the first to focus on gothic influences in fashion. "Although popularly identified with black-clad teenagers and rock musicians, the gothic has also been an important theme in contemporary fashion," states the curator and FIT director, Valerie Steele. "The imagery of death and decay, the power of horror and the erotic macabre are perversely attractive to many designers."

The distinctly moody individuals concerned won't be disappointed to find, alongside their own designs in the exhibition, original Victorian mourning dress, crepe veils and memento-mori jewellery, not to mention generally unnerving curiosities including a wax head and death mask of a poet. Eiko Ishioka's costumes for the film Dracula will also be on display.

The word "gothic", of course, means "of or pertaining to the Goths", a Germanic people who invaded the Roman Empire from the third to the fifth century. The Romans regarded them as barbaric, but later, their reputation was romanticised, and the Goths were reinvented as wild, dangerous and anti-establishment in a glamorous rather than raping-and-pillaging kind of way. In the Middle Ages, the word "Gothic" was applied to a style of architecture characterised by towering spires, stained glass and pointed arches, all designed to guide the eye towards Heaven. There was, by that time, something sublime attached to the term. All these meanings have endured.

"Traditional costume historians use the term 'gothic fashion' to describe Northern European medieval dress from the 13th to the 15th century," writes Steele in an excellent book published in October to coincide with the FIT show. "Gothic fashion was form-fitting, yet exaggerated, with long, trailing sleeves and extraordinary headdresses. Ladies' dresses featured shockingly deep décolletages, while young men wore skin-tight leggings, long pointed shoes and short doublets decorated with pinking, slashing and lacing."

Couple this with a macabre obsession with the human skeleton and even rotten corpses that sprang up at the time of the Black Death, and there you have it, fashion friends: the original components of gothic dress, all of which remain to this day.

If gothic fashion is a constant fixture subculturally – spend the day on Brighton beach and, even in blazing sunshine, there's always a ghostly pale slip of a thing dressed head-to-toe in wintery black clothing, with black Dr Martens boots to match – this season, it's more prevalent on the catwalk than it has been for years.

If Riccardo Tisci has long been enamoured with gothic imagery, this season he's gone into overdrive – a large crucifix is burnt on to a black cobweb knit, or dangle from ropes of gold chain. Similarly, at Alexander McQueen, corseted black fairy dresses are worn with opulent but sinister jewellery and metal-toed, spike-heeled ankle boots. The fact that Miuccia Prada has crafted almost her entire collection in black lace – including black lacy handbag – is more surprising, however. And even at Balenciaga, the hooded black eyes were inspired by Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu.

So, why now? One can only presume that a dark and distressed economic and indeed socio-political climate calls for dark and distressed clothing to match. Certainly, there has rarely been such consensus where high fashion is concerned. "Gothic style does not simply reflect social anxieties," argues Steele, however, "since, from the beginning, it has been a knowing genre that plays with the pleasurable aspects of terror." Yikes.

Gothic: Dark Glamour, The Museum at FIT, New York, from 5 September; accompanying book published by Yale University Press, 9 October

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