Gothic style: a study day at the BFI

This post was originally written for GUISE magazine. If you’re a fan of costumes and costume design it’s always worth a read!

Over the past four months the BFI have been celebrating all things gothic with an eclectic programme of films, talks and events split into four themes: Monstrous, the Dark Arts, Haunted and Love is a Devil (the current and final installment). This weekend, the venue played host to the Gothic Style, an informative series of lectures exploring the costumes used within the genre, the influence they (and by extension ‘the Gothic’) can exert over real-world style and how it has inspired a host of dedicated sub-cultures and fans.

Great Expectations 2012Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (Dir: Mike Newell, 2012)

The word ‘Gothic’ conjures up a very particular visual style, as the afternoon’s first speakers (Catherine Spooner, Senior Lecturer in English at Lancaster University and Royce Mahawatte, Cultural Studies Lecturer at CSM) were quick to point out. Spooner, whose presentation focused on female dress, touched upon the tradition of black before considering its opposite: white. The various incarnations of Miss Havisham, including the 1945 release by David Lean and the much more recent adaptation by Mike Newell, play into the expected aesthetic. In both examples Miss Havisham’s once white, now yellowing wedding gown is decayed and holey; she is an emblem of the past, a fact that’s exacerbated by an out-moded gown. Of course, ghostly female apparitions are not the mainstay of female gothics, and Spooner also considered the relevance of white Empire dresses which, despite their Austen-tinged connotations, have become a by-word for sexualised vampire chic thanks in no small part to the Karnstein Trilogy. These vampire films, produced by Hammer films, presented female vampires in versions of the Empire line dress, low-cut in an attempt to attract attention to a studio with a waning formula.

Saint Laurent Spring 2014Saint Laurent, Spring 2014

Spooner’s discussion of vampires was continued by Mahawatte, who focused on male costume. Central to his argument was the idea that, for men especially, costume was (and is) used as a way to control fear and to manage feeling. The body and clothes often conceal what’s monstrous and allow a character to function in the everyday but, within film, directors and designers can play with costume to reveal and conceal and dictate narrative. According to Mahawatte, vampires are inherently stylish, fashion and flamboyant dress are indicators of their ‘deadly’ nature; in Nosferatu (1922), Max Schreck wears a costume that plays on nineteenth century style. He appears more modern than the other characters and his slim silhouette remains, Mahawatte also suggested, a stylistic shorthand for how we perceive masculine gothic today. Skinny jeans, minimalist and flamboyant, represent one of the most important stylistic shifts for men over the last generation and, with their form-fitting style and emphasis on zero-sizing, are the ultimate ‘vampire look’.

The afternoon continued with presentations from Maria Mellins, who examined how vampire appreciation has explored a whole sub-community and Amber Butchart, who lent a historical perspective to gothic style. After tracing the routes of black – first popularised in the sixteenth century by Philip II of Spain, its links to the austere sensibilities of the clergy and finally, the emergence of the LBD in the 1920s – Butchart delved into the Victorian culture of mourning. This was governed by a complex and particular body of rules including the length and extent of the mourning period and the types of fabric (nothing shiny or reflective) that should be worn.

Victorian mourning dress commercials

 Victorian mourning dress commercials

Of course, this grew into a lucrative business, as traders promised gowns in a day and women’s magazines advised on the latest mourning fashions – after all, it would not do to wear the same dress to mourn a husband and brother. The outbreak of WWI put paid to many of the lingering customs, but the inspiration lives on in the work of many fashion designers, including McQueen, Givenchy, Rick Owens and Rodarte. Butchart explored several of McQueen’s designs, including his graduate collection, which featured spools of hair (a direct link to Victorian mourning jewellery which was made from human hair) and The Horn of Plenty collection (AW 09/10) which included a dramatic ensemble made out of dyed duck feathers.

McQueen Horn of PlentyAlexander McQueen, Horn of Plenty AW 09/10

My conclusion? That gothic has many permutations and is an evolving style; as exemplified by self-confessed Disco-Goth Angel Rose who presented a selection of films to close the event. Almost anything can be ‘gothicised’ and its necessary to consider the genre as something more than the sum of gothic literature; it has infiltrated almost every aspect of contemporary culture and, in the process, has become diffused but by no means less powerful.

Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film continues at the BFI until the end of January.

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