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Sticking to The Mission: How and why Goths adapt as they get older

Updated Monday 4th July 2011

Although considered a youth subculture, the nature of Goth allows followers to adapt as they get older.

Laurie Taylor:
Although I tried hard - very, very hard - I was never much good at adopting a subcultural identity. I mean take my Teddy Boy period - there was nothing wrong with the suit, I mean Mother wouldn't allow me to have the black velvet lapels but there was no doubt about the length and the drape of the jacket or the way that the trousers narrowed down to the Day-Glo socks and the heavy crepe boots.

I could also boast a leather bootlace tie, even if I only dared to put it on after I'd left the house. And my haircut, while it wasn't quite the full Tony Curtis, but it was thick and greasy enough to just about pass muster in a darkened bar. Trouble was - I never mastered the walk.

You see while proper Teds like Joe Carroll - Joe Carroll, I mean he could empty the pavement around him when he strolled down Stanley Road, no-one even moved an inch from their normal trajectory when I hove into view. No wonder perhaps that Joe called me an 'Edward' - which was the derisory term for weekend or plastic Teddy Boys.

On the whole I might have done better as a Goth. You see, in that subculture being a bit pale, bit thin, slightly puny, somewhat melancholic it seems - they seem more like articles of membership than disqualifications.

And, as I now realise, after reading a new research article in the British Journal of Sociology, as a Goth I'd have had a better chance of prolonging my subcultural identity. I mean - imagine a septuagenarian Teddy Boy.

Two goth models Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Kati1313 | Dreamstime.com
Two young Goths

Well the author of that article, an article called Ageing in a Spectacular Youth Culture: continuity, change and community amongst older Goths is Paul Hodkinson who's senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Surrey.

Actually I'm not all that surprised by Paul's current research interest in ageing Goths - he more or less told me about himself - on an edition of Thinking Allowed almost a decade ago.

Archive recording

Paul Hodkinson:
If there is a social aim of Goth it tends to be to keep Goth going. Let me put it this way: I think that there were two ideals that came through from interviewing people of the group.

The first of which was an idea of self-expression.

The second of which was the need to demonstrate commitment to a particular group in contrast to various other theories around at the moment, which seem to emphasise the notion of people moving around between groups and being one thing one day, one thing the next and perhaps three things the day after.

What I found in the case of the Goth scene - and this was something that was confirmed more and more the more research I did really - was that this was about people that seemed to be into it for a long time and also while they were into it, it wasn't like they were sharing their identity equally with several other affiliations as well - this took precedence.

Laurie Taylor:
This was a primary identification, this is what they were?

Paul Hodkinson:
Yeah.

Laurie Taylor:
Well Paul is now with me here. Did you ever imagine you were going to be coming along here pretty well a decade later and talking about Goths in their middle age?

Paul Hodkinson:
It didn't particularly occur to me but it's great to be here again.

Laurie Taylor:
Now the Goths that you studied - I mean when we were talking last time - I suppose - well it was almost first wave black clothes, bit of androgyny - eye liner, piercings - that was back in the '80s. How much has the scene changed now - contemporary Goths, we're not talking about ageing Goths but contemporary Goths - has it changed, has the philosophy changed, has the dress changed, has the style changed?

Paul Hodkinson:
I think there are perhaps different versions of it, so there are some people that have gone off in a much more electronic industrial dance Goth music, direction; whereas equally there are quite a lot - and some of the people that I have been talking about more recently - who perhaps you could say are looking backwards to a certain extent, and they're still really much enjoying some of the music from the '80s, some of the music from the '90s, as well as some newer stuff.

Laurie Taylor:
If we talk about clothes, style, music, things like that, can we still talk about a core philosophy which is a Goth philosophy of life?

Paul Hodkinson:
I'm not sure whether it's a philosophy but there's very clear kind of defining themes that you could look at all the different variations of the group, and you've always got this emphasis on black and this kind of dark aesthetic I think. And to an extent always this emphasis on a degree of androgyny - male Goths do tend to look fairly feminine and so on. So there are certain things that run through, albeit that certain things have changed and there are different versions of it too.

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Laurie Taylor:
Who did you speak to in this study - you went back to some of the people who took part in your first research?

Paul Hodkinson:
Yeah, the idea very much was to go back and reconnect with some of the people that I'd interviewed in the original research and do a kind of 'where are they now' study to look at how long people stay involved, and if they stay involved for a long time how do they square continuing to be a Goth with various other things that might happen to them along the way, and changing priorities to do with adulthood.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean I referred earlier to the rather silly idea of being a septuagenarian Teddy Boy, but is there something about being a Goth which guarantees a sort of longevity compared to other subcultural identities?

Paul Hodkinson:
It's really hard to say and it's one of the things that I've been trying to think about.

 I think part of it - and we were hearing it just now in that clip that you played of me before - is the extent of people's commitment to begin with, I think means that they become quite locked into friendship groups and so on; and almost, I suppose, become sort of socially dependent on that particular theme and there's no particular obvious reason to stop that.

I think also you could perhaps say that compared to some other subcultures, even though Goth was very "youthy" in all sorts of different ways, there was still this kind of emphasis in the scene on kind of doing well educationally, for example, with something that was regarded as quite cool as opposed to being frowned on, perhaps, elsewhere.

And so you could make an argument that that makes it slightly more compatible with then eventually squaring being a Goth with having a professional career, or whatever it happens to be.

Laurie Taylor:
I talked about my physical failure to be a successful Teddy Boy - I couldn't strut - but there are certain sorts of impediments to remaining a Goth as you age, aren't there - there's the simple problem you've got to go to work, and it's difficult to align Goth ideology with work.  Also I suppose growing waistlines and so on. How are these matters dealt with?

Paul Hodkinson:
Well, the interesting thing about work is that many people were working in one form or another in my original study 10 years or so ago, but the importance of work to people had changed substantially.

So where previously people were talking about work primarily as means to fund their kind of lifestyle, which was dominated by going out and being a Goth, now people were starting to talk about 'actually this career is important to me and actually getting on in this career is important to me; and that means that maybe I can't go out quite as frequently as I used to, and maybe I do have to make some kinds of compromises with my appearance' and so on.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes, let's talk about appearance. I mean being thin was pretty essential and the black hair - the long black hair... how do you cope with the fact that you can no longer really boast those attributes?

Paul Hodkinson:
Well this is very much what I was trying to get to the bottom of - how do people find ways to adapt?

Some people, for example, would look at the ways in which Goth artists themselves had aged and they'd gradually cut their hair and adopt a kind of distinctive but rather older looking style.

And some people would kind of use that as a kind of basis. But, yeah many people cut their hair at a particular point, and there was a collective effect as well; there [were] enough people involved that I think you got collective trends of people all starting to wear slightly less revealing clothes, for example, or all starting to have slightly less "mad" hair...

Laurie Taylor:
Do you get new inventions? I mean, if we're talking about women, the tight PVC or something like that really no longer works, do you get a definite style, definite clothes which are adopted by middle aged Goths?

Paul Hodkinson:
To an extent. I mean there is a mixture, I mean some people still are wearing that kind of tight PVC and various other things that would have been associated with the Goth scene before but yeah, there were also kind of collective developments.

There's a development that is kind of known self-consciously in the scene as "corporate Goth", which is a style of Goth which is particularly kind of smart, sort of centred on pinstripe but with a kind of subcultural edge.

Heiaken models the corporate Goth look Creative commons image Icon Heiaken under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
Heiaken, who blogs at blackkohl.blogspot.com,
models a Corporate Goth style

Laurie Taylor:
Go on a bit more, I'm interested in this corporate Goth. What else does the corporate Goth wear - the pinstripe suit...?

Paul Hodkinson:
Yeah, and sometimes sort of people will wear ties and that kind of thing but they'll also kind of connect with things that look a little bit more subcultural....

Laurie Taylor:
So you can be working in the City as a Goth and you'd have sort-of Goth friends around you?

Paul Hodkinson:
Yeah some people do. But some people are not working in the City, it's just they use that style and perhaps it's a convenient thing after you're 30, and maybe your body's changed a bit, or you've just got a different sense of what you want to look like now that you're 30 or 35.

Laurie Taylor:
And I was just leading up to - what about women, I mean what clothes can they adopt which still would allowe them to be Goths?

Paul Hodkinson:
It's varied because one of the things for women that's always been the look, I think, has been the corset, and in some ways some female Goths talk to me about the way in which that was actually quite a convenient, useful item of clothing if you were kind of getting older, because it holds the tummy in, it sort of shows the breasts and cleavage off, and that was a look that quite worked. So quite often you would see people still wearing corsets and so on.

But other people said quite clearly that they made a point of covering up more, that they were more likely to wear things like a band t-shirt or something like that.

Laurie Taylor:
And lastly what about socialising? We were just listening to Bauhaus there, music was so important, going out listening to music, going to those sort of gigs - what happens when the nightlife disappears, that pulls a key strut away from the subculture doesn't it?

Paul Hodkinson:
Well, one of the things that was striking was how many people were still going out, but at the same time they were tending to go out rather less often than previously in many cases, partly because of work, partly because of various other things.

And another thing that interested me is that a lot of people said that they were socialising, if you like, more privately, with particular groups of Goth friends, so not so often going to the kind of the Goth club, the public event kind of thing, and sometimes organising sort of little get-togethers in a more sort of private sense.

Laurie Taylor:
Are you going to come back in another decade and tell me how they're doing?

Paul Hodkinson:
I'd love to yeah, sounds good.

Laurie Taylor:
I daresay I'll be around for you.

This piece is adapted from Thinking Allowed, first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, 29th June 2011.

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