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Still gothic after all these years

Part 3

by Ellen Barry, photos by Dana Smith

So the look is more than a look. It's a social marker and a sign of commitment. It's also a time investment. Stephen Ross, who runs a goth night in Albany, has let his own look run down over time as the personal maintenance became oppressive. "Being gothic is a full-time job," he says darkly. And it entails sacrifice; goths will issue a list of grievances, starting with the dreaded stare ("We don't want to be stared at," I was told again and again) and extending to a couple of reported instances in which goths were beaten to death in Kansas City.

The intricacy of the look is a decent gauge of the culture's vitality, according to Wesley Bexton, an anthropology student at UC Berkeley, who studied goth for a class last year. "People are starting to show up at the clubs dressing up more," says Bexton, who is 22 and himself a goth. "When someone's willing to spend three hours on their makeup and their clothing in order to go out for four hours and mess it up, you know something's happening."

The plumage is indeed remarkable, but one warning to the outsider: you may not get in to look at it. The goths' pained aversion to the public gaze can strike the outsider as paradoxical, considering the time it takes them to dress, but it is one of the great truths of goth. There is a strong distrust of "gawkers" or "tourists" -- non-goths who stare in a hostile manner, and who can be identified by their clothing. The clubs with stricter dress codes prohibit white T-shirts and blue jeans (although black T-shirts and black jeans are okay). Cusr?ue repeats it like a mantra: Don't spook the natives. He says he turns away 100 people from every "Hell" night because of the T-shirt rule, but it's worth it. The natives spook easily.

"Look at it this way," he says. "If you are used to getting shit every time you leave the house, and you come to an event and you pay $10 to come to the event, wouldn't you get offended if you got the same shit that you can get for free every time you leave the house?"

This aloofness is one explanation for the goths' survival; unlike the hippies, they have no ambition to sweep the nation up into their movement. Goths put a huge premium on separateness -- many are acidly judgmental about who really qualifies -- and they'd rather turn away a few sympathetic outsiders than admit someone who will disturb the equilibrium.

All of which adds up to a social sphere with its own rules. Bexton, the anthropology student, broke it all down in a paper titled "Spatial Boundaries, Etiquette, and Interpersonal Interactions at a Gothic Club."

Bexton's fieldwork, now posted on the Web, describes in the language of a dissertation an atmosphere in which dancing "requires much agility" and "collisions that involve . . . dancers are often quite dramatic." He notices an emphasis on individuality; overall, he draws the conclusion that gothic clubs are that rare place: a social forum for the shy person

The social conventions presented in this paper create a space in which people who do not like prolonged contact with others may function in a relaxed and comfortable state. I have little doubt that if these clubs did not exist, there would be a reasonably sized population of private people "stewing in their own juices" at home, avoiding most social contact.

Not surprisingly, goths display varying degrees of what Rich Risbridger, 23, refers to as "outgroup xenophobia." This xenophobia is generally targeted at the large segment of the population goths sometimes refer to generically as "frat boys" or "baseball caps." It's not so much blanket antipathy as wariness, says Davis. "I wouldn't say that most [goths] think all normal people are ignorant or bad," she says. "It's just that when you see a normal person you don't know what they're going to be like."

But in the opinion of Rob Mohns, a friendly 23-year-old systems operator in a long black skirt, the T-shirt test usually works. "If someone comes in in a white T-shirt and jeans I probably won't talk to them," says Mohns. "I don't usually get along with frat boys."

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